'Bamboozled': Boris Johnson was 'confused' by science, Covid inquiry hears

Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser, has been giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks reports

Boris Johnson's "lack of leadership" during the coronavirus pandemic has been exposed again at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, with one former top adviser saying the PM and his ministers were "meek as mice".

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was the government's chief scientific adviser during the pandemic, revealed apparent difficulties working under Mr Johnson when giving evidence to the inquiry, explaining his "real struggle" in getting the ex-PM to understand science.

The scientist vented, in his private diaries which were shown to the inquiry, about the "awful" experience of watching the then-prime minister read statistics.

One entry from May 4 2020 said: “Late afternoon meeting with the PM on schools. My God, this is complicated. Models will not provide the answer. PM is clearly bamboozled."

Others, also written in May 2020, said: “PM asking whether we’ve overdone it on the lethality of this disease. He swings between optimism, pessimism, and then this.

“PM still confused on different types of test. He holds us in his head for a session and then it goes.”

In June, Sir Patrick wrote: “Watching the PM get his head round stats is awful. He finds relative and absolute risk almost impossible to understand.”

He did however defend the ex-prime minister when giving evidence on Monday insisting the issue of helping politicians understand the data was not unique to the UK.

"I do not think that there was necessarily a unique inability to grasp some of these concepts with the prime minister at the time, but it was hard work sometimes to try and make sure that he had understood what a particular graph or piece of data was saying.”

Sir Patrick explained how he "would not have tried to get across too many scientific concepts" when speaking to Mr Johnson at meetings.

He described Cabinet ministers as “meek as mice” and accused them of an “abrogation of responsibility” for not imposing recommended restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the autumn of 2020.

It was also revealed at the inquiry on Monday how current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak - who was chancellor at the time - did not consult scientists before introducing the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Sir Patrick's diaries from the pandemic - which he has described as a "brain dump" to protect his mental health - have been in the spotlight during the inquiry after he revealed that the former prime minister once described coronavirus as “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.

One diary entry from October 2020, shown to the inquiry on Monday, criticised Mr Johnson's indecision, something which has been revealed numerous times at the inquiry.

Sir Patrick's notes revealed Mr Johnson, when considering lockdown, was flittering between letting “it all rip” and closing the economy. “This all feels like a complete lack of leadership," the scientist wrote.

Extracts from Sir Patrick’s diary have been used during the inquiry to look at the work of key figures, including Cabinet ministers, ex-Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain and former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill.

Sir Chris Whitty is also due to appear before the inquiry on Tuesday Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

One entry recorded that the former PM had referred to the Treasury as the “pro-death squad” when he wanted the department to back him in arguing for a path to eased restrictions.

Sir Patrick, who served as the government’s chief scientific adviser from 2018 to 2023, also wrote about his frustrations in dealing with the then-prime minister.

“(Mr Johnson is) obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going,” he said.

“Quite bonkers set of exchanges,” he wrote, referring to a WhatsApp group including Mr Johnson.

Sir Patrick also said that he and Sir Chris felt Number 10 officials were trying to “strong-arm” them into appearing by Mr Johnson’s side at a Downing Street press conference following the then-prime minister’s ex-chief adviser Dominic Cummings’ press conference on his lockdown trip to Barnard Castle.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam will give evidence on Wednesday Credit: PA

The journey was clearly against the rules and Mr Cummings’ televised appearance before the media was a “car crash”, the former chief scientist said in an entry in May 2020.

Sir Patrick has objected to the publication of his pandemic-era diary in full, describing the notes as a “brain dump” written “at the end of immensely stressful days to protect his mental health”.

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett has yet to make a decision on whether the entries should be disclosed in their entirety.

Sir Patrick has always maintained it was not his job to tell Mr Johnson and the Cabinet what they wanted to hear, but to make clear the scientific evidence.

In October 2021, he told the BBC: “My job is not to sugarcoat it. My job is not to tell them things they want to hear… it’s to make sure that they understand what the science at that moment is saying, what the uncertainties are, and to try to make that as clear as possible.”

The government’s current chief scientific adviser, Dame Angela McLean, will give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday, while Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Dame Jenny Harries, who is head of the UK Health Security Agency, will give evidence on Thursday.

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