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Boris Johnson was “bamboozled” and “confused” by the scientific modelling and data presented to him during the pandemic, the UK’s Covid-19 public inquiry heard on Monday.
The hearing was shown some of the diary entries of Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser at the time, in which he wrote that “watching” the then prime minister attempt to “get his head round [sic] stats” had been “awful”.
Vallance explained that his detailed diary-keeping of events was a way to “decompress at the end of the day” and were “private thoughts” never intended for public consumption.
Vallance is the latest in a series of high-profile figures to take the stand in the far-reaching inquiry, which has already seen a range of important figures at the time hit out and blame others for what was at times a chaotic response to the national health emergency.
In an entry from May 4 2020, Vallance wrote after briefing Johnson: “Late afternoon meeting with the PM on schools. My God, this is complicated. Models will not provide the answer. PM is clearly bamboozled.”
In the same month, he wrote: “PM still confused on different types of test. He holds it in his head for a session and then it goes.”
According to another diary entry in September that year, Johnson asked at a meeting: “Is it because of the great libertarian nation we are that it [Covid] spreads so much? . . . we’re too shit to get our act together.”
His diary entry continued to say that Johnson “looked broken” and had “head in hands a lot”.
Vallance lamented a lack of “readiness” to act across government as he told the inquiry that advisers made an “error” in waiting to apply lockdown measures until they had more precise information about the threat to the NHS.
“The focus on trying to get that timing exactly right was incorrect. It was an error to think you could be that precise,” he told the inquiry, adding: “You need to go early.”
Vallance said that scientific advisers were waiting to obtain accurate information from the NHS in the early weeks of the pandemic about the precise threat to hospitals of an increasing number of severe Covid cases, including the moment at which services were likely to become overwhelmed.
But, he said, advisers and scientific modellers faced “great difficulty” in getting hold of those numbers.
The former chief scientific adviser claimed there was a lack of preparedness across government to put into action any measures recommended by advisers to limit the spread of the virus. He said scientific knowledge “wasn’t mirrored by an operational readiness”.
Vallance also conceded there was some disagreement in early March 2020, as the virus began to take hold in the UK, about whether lockdown measures should be introduced to limit its spread. Johnson eventually ordered a full lockdown on March 23, which came into effect three days later.
Vallance said the scientists received clear evidence on the weekend of the March 13 that “unambiguously” showed that the pandemic was much more widespread and faster moving than they had anticipated.
At this stage, he told government ministers that he believed rapid action should be taken to limit the spread of the virus by 75 per cent, especially across London.
He said he was subsequently informed that Sir Chris Wormald, the most senior civil servant at the health department, was “incandescent with rage” that he had raised his views in this manner “without due process”.
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