Boris Johnson was ‘bamboozled’ by science during the pandemic, Patrick Vallance reveals

Sir Patrick Vallance’s bombshell diary entries revealed in excruciating detail how the former prime minister struggled to understand graphs and ‘just could not get’ some scientific concepts

Archie Mitchell
Monday 20 November 2023 15:50 GMT
Boris Johnson was bamboozled by the pandemic, Patrick Vallance says

Boris Johnson was “bamboozled” by the science during the pandemic and had to have details explained to him “repeatedly”, the Covid inquiry has heard.

Sir Patrick Vallance’s bombshell diary entries revealed in excruciating detail how the former prime minister struggled to understand graphs and “just could not get” some scientific concepts.

The former chief scientific adviser – one of the government’s most senior advisers during the pandemic – told the inquiry about how he kept daily notes as a “brain dump” to help him “decompress” — and never intended them to “see the light of day”.

But the diary extracts have already proved humiliating for Mr Johnson, with the inquiry hearing how Mr Johnson sometimes struggled to retain scientific information, was “clutching at straws” and at one point queried whether Covid was spreading “because of the great libertarian nation we are”.

In one entry following a meeting with Mr Johnson in May 2020 about schools, Sir Patrick wrote: “Late afternoon meeting with the PM on schools. My God, this is complicated. Models will not provide the answer. PM is clearly bamboozled.”

Another entry, also written in May 2020, said: “PM still confused on different types of test. He holds it in his head for a session and then it goes.”

In another humiliating passage for Mr Johnson, Sir Patrick wrote: “Watching the PM get his head around stats is awful. He finds relative and absolute risk almost impossible to understand.”

Later, in September 2020, Mr Johnson is talked through some graphs, after which Sir Patrick wrote: “It is difficult, he asks questions like ‘which line is the dark red line?’ – is he colourblind? Then ‘so you think positivity has gone up overnight?’ then ‘oh god bloody hell’. But it is all the same stuff he was shown six hours ago.”

The government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance giving evidence to the inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry)

Asked about the extracts, Sir Patrick said Mr Johnson “would be the first to admit it wasn't his forte, and that he did struggle with some of the concepts and we did need to repeat them often”.

But Sir Patrick added that scientific advises from across Europe all recalled their leaders having problems understanding some concepts.

On another major day at the Covid inquiry, Sir Patrick also revealed:

  • Scientific advisers were not consulted on Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme before it was announced
  • Mr Sunak, who was chancellor at the time, claimed Covid was about “handling scientists, not the virus” amid a push to reopen the economy
  • Ministers tried to “hide behind” the government’s “following the science” mantra during the pandemic
  • Boris Johnson’s gut was telling him “this will be fine” in the early stages of the pandemic
  • Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, was a lockdown “delayer” early on in the pandemic, amid concerns about the wider impacts of shutting down the economy
  • Mr Johnson said humans could be “licked as a species” and were “too s*** to get our act together” during the pandemic

Boris Johnson was described as ‘broken’ by Sir Patrick Vallance (PA)

Sir Patrick became the latest top adviser to lash out at Mr Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered households half-priced meals to boost the hospitality sector after lockdown.

In former chancellor Mr Sunak’s statement, he said: “I don't recall any concerns about the scheme during ministerial discussions, including those attended by the CMO [Chris Whitty] or CSA [Sir Patrick].”

Inquiry counsel Andrew O'Connor KC told Sir Patrick there was a “certain inconsistency” between Mr Sunak’s claim and Sir Patrick’s, who has said he was not consulted on the policy until it was announced.

Sir Patrick said: “I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk.” He added that he would be “very surprised” if Mr Sunak was not aware of the risks associated with the scheme, which he said pushed up transmission of the virus.

He also claimed that in a meeting during which Mr Sunak did not realise Sir Chris was present, the then chancellor said Covid was about “handling the scientists, not handling the virus”.

Sir Patrick’s diaries also revealed thar Downing Street were “pushing very hard and want the science altered” ahead of the reopening of clubs and bars.

And Sir Patrick fumed after a meeting in June that “nobody in No10 or the Cabinet Office had really read or taken the time to understand the science advice” on social distancing.

Sir Patrick also said he was concerned over the government’s “operational response” to limiting the spread of Covid-19 during the pandemic’s early months.

The leading scientist told the inquiry there was an “urgent recognition” in mid-March 2020 that intense measures were needed to stop the spread of coronavirus.

He said: “I think the new understanding on the weekend of the 14th and 15th of March was that we were much further ahead in the pandemic than we realised and the numbers that came in that week showed that there were many more cases, it was far more widespread and was accelerating faster than anyone had expected.”

Sir Patrick said the focus on trying to get the timing “exactly right” on when to introduce measures to suppress Covid “was incorrect”.

He added: “It was an error to think that you could be that precise. That’s a really important lesson that came out of this I’m afraid – you need to go early.”

The Covid inquiry also heard that pandemic modellers had “great difficulty in getting clarity on the NHS numbers” – the point at which the NHS would be overwhelmed.

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