Boris Johnson was “embarrassed” by science during the pandemic and had to have details explained to him “repeatedly”, the Covid inquiry has heard.
Sir Patrick Vallance's diary entries have revealed in incredible detail how the former prime minister struggled to understand graphs and “just couldn't get” some scientific concepts.
The former chief scientific adviser – one of the government's most senior advisers during the pandemic – told the inquest how he kept daily notes as a “brain dump” to help him “decompress” – and never intended for them to “see the limelight”. “.
But extracts from the diary have already proved humiliating for Mr Johnson, with the inquest hearing how Johnson sometimes struggled to retain scientific information, was “grasping at straws” and at one point questioned whether Covid was spreading “because of the big libertarian nation that we are.”
In a post following a meeting with Mr Johnson in May 2020 about schools, Sir Patrick wrote: “Late afternoon meeting with Prime Minister on schools. God, this is complicated. Models will not provide the answer. The Prime Minister is clearly confused.”
Another entry, also written in May 2020, said: “PM is still confused on different types of tests. He keeps it in his head for a session and then leaves.”
In another disparaging passage about Mr Johnson, Sir Patrick wrote: “To see the Prime Minister wrap his head around the statistics is appalling. He finds it almost impossible to understand the relative and absolute risk.'
Later in September 2020, Mr Johnson talks through some graphs, after which Sir Patrick wrote: “It's difficult, it asks questions like ‘which line is the dark red line?' – is it colorblind? Then “so you think positivity has gone up overnight?” then “oh god bloody hell”. But it's the same thing they showed him six hours ago.”
Asked about the passages, Sir Patrick said Mr Johnson “would be the first to admit it wasn't his forte and he did struggle with some of the concepts and we needed to go over them often”.
But Sir Patrick added that scientific advice from across Europe reminded their leaders that they had problems understanding some concepts.
In another important day in the Covid investigation, Sir Patrick also revealed:
- Scientific advisors were not consulted on Rishi Sunak's Eat Out to Help Out program 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' government mantra of ‘following science' during pandemic
- Boris Johnson's gut told him “this will be fine” in the early stages of the pandemic
- Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, was “delaying” the lockdown early in the pandemic, amid concerns about the wider impact of shutting down the economy
- Mr Johnson said people could be “licked as a species” and were “too thin to get along” during the pandemic
Sir Patrick became the latest top councilor to attack Mr Sunak's Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered households half-price meals to boost the hospitality sector after the lockdown.
In the statement former chancellor Mr Sunak said: “I do not recall any concerns about the regime during ministerial discussions, including those involving the CMO [Chris Whitty] or CSA [Sir Patrick].”
Inquiry counsel Andrew O'Connor KC told Sir Patrick there was a “particular inconsistency” between Mr Sunak's claim and Sir Patrick, who said he was not consulted on the policy until it was announced.
Sir Patrick said: “I think it would be very obvious to anyone that this would inevitably cause an increase in the risk of transmission.” He added that he would be “very surprised” if Mr Sunak was not aware of the risks associated with the programme, which he said fueled the transmission of the virus.
He also claimed that in a meeting at which Mr Sunak did not realize Sir Chris was present, the then chancellor said Covid was about “the handling of the scientists, not the handling of the virus”.
Sir Patrick's diaries also revealed that Downing Street was “pushing hard and wanting the science to change” over 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 scientific advice” on social distancing.
Sir Patrick also said he was concerned about the government's “operational response” to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the early months of the pandemic.
The top scientist told the inquiry that there was an “urgent recognition” in mid-March 2020 that strong measures were needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
He said: “I think the new understanding over the weekend of March 14 and 15 was that we were much further ahead in the pandemic than we had realized and the numbers that came in that week showed that there were many more cases, it was much more widespread and it was accelerating faster than anyone expected.”
Sir Patrick said the focus on trying to get the timing “just right” for when to introduce measures to crack down on Covid “was misguided”.
He added: “It was a mistake to think you could be so precise. I'm afraid that's a very important lesson that came out of it – you have to go early.”
The Covid inquiry also heard that pandemic modelers had “great difficulty in getting the NHS numbers clear” – the point at which the NHS would be overwhelmed.