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Boris Johnson Was "Bamboozled" By Scientific Advice During Covid Pandemic

Sir Patrick Vallance was the Chief Scientific Adviser to the government between 2018 and 2023 (UK Covid-19 Inquiry)

5 min read

Former prime minister Boris Johnson was "bamboozled" by much of the scientific advice given during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the government's top scientific adviser.

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, is giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry on Monday, following many other evidence sessions with senior politicians and advisers, including former prime minister David Cameron, ex-chancellor George Osborne and Johnson's former adviser Dominic Cummings.

Multiple revealing notes, written by Vallance as the pandemic unfolded, were shown to the inquiry, detailing how Vallance and other advisers had struggled to explain scientific concepts to Johnson.

“The then-prime minister gave up science when he was 15 and he would be the first to admit it was not his forte," Vallence said, describing how he would have to repeat concepts “often” to Johnson. The notes showed Vallance recording how Johnson would forget information only hours after being told something.

COVID notes
(UK Covid Inquiry)

The former scientific adviser told the Inquiry that some data would “catch [Johnson's] eye” and some would not, meaning advisers had to develop a way to present data that would help the prime minister understand it better.

In some cases, as demonstrated by Vallance's notes from the time, Johnson would question whether the data presented to him was in any way affected by government intervention or whether it was all "just a mirage".

(UK Covid Inquiry)

According to Vallance, there was an “unfamiliarity with science in government” that meant a great deal of time was used to explain concepts and data to the prime minister and ministers.  

“People who haven’t had training in science think of it as immutable facts,” Vallance explained, adding that it was difficult to get across the concept that science was more of a process of increasing one's knowledge base and was "constantly changing with new evidence".

“That is not intuitive to many people and therefore there was a bit of dependence on it, an idea that this was a scientific problem and people would listen slavishly to this and want to hide behind this at times," he continued.

"I can also totally agree that there is no such thing as 'the science'. Science by its very definition is a moving body of knowledge."

Helen MacNamara, the former Deputy Cabinet Secretary, previously told the Covid Inquiry she was extremely concerned the Government did not have an adequate plan to deal with Covid-19 prior to a nationwide lockdown called in March 2020.

She also said she had been concerned that the government was not "making any decisions" and just blindly "following the science" without further scrutiny.

Vallance did mention that it was clear from meetings with advisers from other countries that it was “true in every country” that leaders did not always have a full grasp of scientific concepts and how to interpret graphs. However, while this was not unique to Johnson, Vallance said it was “hard work sometimes” to get Johnson to understand scientific explanations. 

The notes also described a point at which Johnson looked "broken" and had his "head in his hands". Vallance's notes also quoted Johnson as saying "we are too shit to get our act together" and described how on this day they had gone "round in circles" discussing whether to implement a full lockdown, with the prime minister "clutching at straws".

covid notes
(UK Covid Inquiry)

Asked whether Johnson was a particularly difficult leader to deal with on days like this, Vallance replied: “It was difficult at times,” and said that when Johnson was acting like this, he would have waited for a “better opportunity” to present scientific advice.

Johnson became seriously ill with Covid-19 between March and April 2020, and Vallance said that shortly after this period he had struggled to “concentrate on things”, but that once he had recovered for a few weeks “there was no obvious change between him and what he was like beforehand”.

The Inquiry revealed further extracts from Vallance's notebooks that showed him recording that Johnson was beginning to "argue for letting it all rip".

In October 2020, Vallance wrote in his notebook that the former prime minister had said that people might die from Covid – most likely to be older – "have had a good innings" and that "most people who die have reached their time anyway".

(UK Covid Inquiry)

The notes show that discussions were being had between the prime minister, then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak and former adviser Dominic Cummings over whether to avoid a national lockdown and "allow people to die".

The Inquiry also asked Vallance about whether government strategy was clear enough in its aims during the pandemic, with the former adviser responding that it would have been "helpful" if the government had decided upon clearer aims throughout.

"The prime minister would take a certain position in one meeting, then perhaps another one later on, and sometimes was trying to test people's positions and find out whether they really held to what they were saying," he said.

Vallance told the Inquiry that leaks to the media from the public health advisory groups Sage and Spi-B had created issues.

“It’s very difficult to run an advisory committee when things are being perpetually discussed in the press," he said.

Asked about whether it was helpful for him and then-Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty to participate in the regular Covid press conferences, he told the Inquiry that he now thinks it was "overall, beneficial", but said there was often a "blurred line" where they were asked about government policy decisions which they had not been responsible for as independent advisers.

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