What we learned from Patrick Vallance at the Covid inquiry

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser throughout Covid, has been giving evidence to the inquiry into the handling of the pandemic on Monday. Here is what we have learned so far.

Scientists worried about ‘Eat out to help out’

Vallance was asked about the summer 2020 discount scheme run by Rishi Sunak’s Treasury to encourage people to go to restaurants and cafes – and whether concerns were raised.

He said the plan “completely reversed” earlier advice to reduce mixing between households, and that it would clearly have increased infection levels.

The inquiry was shown written evidence from Sunak who said: “I do not recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions,” including ones attended by Vallance and by Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England.

Vallance said: “I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this would inevitably cause an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been known by ministers.”

Andrew O’Connor KC, counsel to the inquiry, said: “And Mr Sunak?” Vallance replied: “I can’t recall which meetings he was in, but I’d be very surprised if any minister didn’t understand that these openings carried risk.”

Boris Johnson is not great at science

It was, Vallance said with heartfelt understatement, “difficult at times” to get the then prime minister to fully absorb concepts central to Covid, such as how lockdowns can flatten infection rate curves.

Boris Johnson last studied science at the age of 15 and “would be the first to admit it wasn’t his forte”, and he had the habit of pretending to misunderstand things to test out whether an alternative could be true, Vallance said.

Extracts from Vallance’s contemporaneous diary showed Johnson found it “a real struggle” to understand some graphs. One entry said the prime minister was “bamboozled” by modelling, while another said Johnson would fail to understand ideas he had had put to him six hours earlier.

This was not an issue just for the UK. Vallance recalled being on a group call with scientific advisers from various countries, when one said their leader could not understand exponential curves, “and the entire phone call burst into laughter because it was true in every country”.

Vallance thought Johnson was indecisive

At one point, the hearing was shown a series of typed-up transcripts from Vallance’s written diary detailing debates over a possible second lockdown in autumn 2020, and it was not altogether flattering for the former prime minister.

In one entry Vallance lamented that the UK had “a weak, indecisive PM”. Asked if he still believed this, Vallance called the words “a late night moment of frustration”, but also did not disagree, saying Johnson had been “influenced a lot by the press”.

Johnson resisted a second lockdown

To an extent this built on evidence earlier this month that Johnson said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose a new lockdown.

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On 25 October 2020, Vallance’s diary said, Johnson began a meeting on possible restrictions by arguing for “letting it all rip. Saying yes, there will be more casualties, but so be it – ‘they have had a good innings’.” The same entry also quoted Johnson as saying: “Most people who die have reached their time anyway.”

Vallance was not hugely impressed by Matt Hancock

Asked whether he felt he could trust what Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, said, Vallance politely but very clearly said no, telling the inquiry: “I think he had a habit of saying things which he didn’t have a basis for, and he would say them too enthusiastically, too early, without the evidence to back them up, and then have to backtrack from them days later.

“I don’t know to what extent that was sort of overenthusiasm versus deliberate. I think a lot of it was overenthusiasm, but he definitely said things which surprised me because I knew the evidence base wasn’t there.”

UK ‘should have gone into lockdown earlier’

Vallance said that while Johnson first announced a lockdown on 23 March 2020, it had been clear to him by the weekend of 14-15 March that action was needed.

Data that weekend showed “there were many more cases, it was far more widespread and was accelerating faster than anyone had expected”, he said, adding: “This was an occasion when I think it’s clear that we should have gone earlier.”

Vallance explained: “I thinkthat weekend there was in principle a decision that all of these measures would be needed. And I think it would have been sensible to have got on and done those as quickly as possible.”

Vallance was reprimanded after calling for lockdown

The inquiry heard that Chris Wormald, who was and remains the top civil servant at the health department and is tipped to be the next cabinet secretary, was “incandescent” with anger after Vallance used a ministerial meeting in mid-March to call for swift action. Mark Sedwill, the then cabinet secretary, was also annoyed, Vallance said.

After hearing this was the case, Vallance asked Wormald why. “He said it was the manner of raising it in the meeting rather than the substance; that he was concerned that I’d sort of thrown it into a ministerial meeting, whereas it should have gone through due process. But I stand by the fact that I think it was the right thing to say at the time.”


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