Patrick Vallance says ministers knew ‘following the science’ was damaging

Ministers knew the repeated mantra that the government was “following the science” during the Covid-19 pandemic was damaging, according to Sir Patrick Vallance.

The government's former chief scientific adviser told the UK's Covid-19 Inquiry that he initially welcomed the use of the phrase as it showed ministers were “listening to us” which “doesn't always happen in government”.

But he “very quickly” changed his mind because it was widely interpreted as ministers “slavishly” following science, when science itself is a “moving body of knowledge”.

When asked on Monday by Andrew O'Connor KC, counsel for the inquiry, if he asked ministers to refrain from using the mantra, Sir Patrick said he could not remember, but added: “They knew it was damaging.

“At some point it softened to ‘we're informed by' … and I think the prime minister actually says that at some point.”

Asked if politicians often used the term because they were uncomfortable with their understanding of the science, Sir Patrick said: “I think it's true.”

He added: “There's a lot of volatility and a lot of uncertainty and a familiarity with the science in government.”

Sir Patrick earlier told the inquiry he was concerned about the government's “operational response” to containing the spread of Covid-19 in the early months of the pandemic.

The former chief scientific adviser – one of the government's most senior advisers during the pandemic – told the inquiry it was uncertain at the end of January 2020 whether the coronavirus would become a major problem for the UK.

However, it soon became clear that the pandemic was at a much more advanced stage than anyone thought and fast action was needed, he said.

Expanding on ministers' repeated insistence that government decision-making is guided by science, Sir Patrick said ministers may have wanted to avoid scrutinizing certain details.

He said: “I think there was a bit of a reliance that (Covid-19) was a scientific problem and people listened to it slavishly and wanted to hide a bit behind it sometimes.”

When asked about criticism that the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) filled a gap in government strategy and decision-making that led to delays, Sir Patrick said: “I agree that we ended up filling gaps and there were many examples where we went into places that we thought just needed a little attention and tried to give it.”