Patrick Vallance's diaries: Eight extracts that lift the lid on No 10's Covid chaos

From left, Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Witty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance give a press conference in Downing St on the latest coronavirus updates
Sir Patrick Vallance, right, gave regular public briefings during the pandemic alongside Boris Johnson and Sir Chris Whitty - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Boris Johnson was “bamboozled” by the science, an unnamed woman sang The Wheels On The Bus to her child during a virtual Cabinet meeting and Matt Hancock told “untruths”.

Over the course of several hours of testimony at the Covid Inquiry, Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser to the Government, lifted the lid on the chaos and dysfunction inside Downing Street.

A prime minister ‘bamboozled’ by the science

Sir Patrick Vallance said Mr Johnson was “bamboozled” by science in a series of scathing diary entries.

Several extracts from Sir Patrick’s notes, written throughout the pandemic after meetings he and other experts held with the then prime minister to explain the various graphs and statistics, revealed his frustration at Mr Johnson’s incomprehension of the scientific evidence.

He described watching the former prime minister trying to get his head around statistics as “awful” and questioned whether Mr Johnson was “colour blind” because of his apparent inability to read graphs.

In one diary entry from May 4 2020, Sir Patrick wrote:

Another diary entry written by Sir Patrick more than a week later reveals the former prime minister also struggled to retain information for more than one meeting:

Sir Patrick wrote in another entry in June 2020:

In a later entry from September, he recalled how “difficult” it was to explain graphs relating to the virus to Mr Johnson:

Despite his apparent frustration with the former prime minister in his diary entries, Sir Patrick told the inquiry there was not “a unique inability” on the part of Mr Johnson, as many other countries’ scientific advisers were having similar problems explaining concepts to politicians.

Sir Patrick told the inquiry of Mr Johnson: “I think I’m right in saying that the prime minister at the time gave up science when he was 15 and I think he’d be the first to admit it wasn’t his forte and that he did struggle with some of the concepts and that we did need to repeat them often.”

Sunak kept scientists in dark over Eat Out to Help Out

Sir Patrick Vallance directly contradicted Rishi Sunak’s claim to the inquiry that scientists had not expressed concerns over his Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

The measure encouraged people to go to restaurants in August 2020 with the promise of 50 per cent off meals, subsidised by the taxpayer. It was pushed through by Mr Sunak, who was Chancellor at the time.

In a witness statement from Mr Sunak shown to the Covid-19 inquiry , the prime minister said: “I don’t recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions, including those attend by the CMO [Whitty] and CSA [Vallance].”

But Sir Patrick said the reason he hadn’t raised concerns was because advisers had been kept in the dark about the scheme.

He told the inquiry: “We didn’t see it before it was announced and I think others in the Cabinet Office also said they didn’t see it before it was formulated as policy. So we weren’t involved in the run up to it.”

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

When asked about Mr Sunak’s understanding of the risks, Sir Patrick said: “If he was in the meetings, 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.”

Sir Patrick said Eat Out to Help Out “completely reversed” previous policy of trying to stop people from different households mixing indoors. He said that under Mr Sunak’s scheme the public was effectively saying “we will pay you” to do just that.

Mr Sunak also appeared dismissive of scientific experts, telling a meeting that Covid was about “handling the scientists, not handling the virus”. He was unaware when he said it that Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, was in attendance.

Sir Patrick wrote in a diary entry in early July 2020:

The Wheels On The Bus sung in Cabinet

Sir Patrick referred to Cabinet ministers as “meek as mice” and said a woman singing The Wheels On The Bus to her baby during one Cabinet meeting over Zoom was “symbolic of the shambles” in Government.

In a diary entry on Oct 11 2020, the former chief scientific adviser wrote:

“Cabinet call. Whilst waiting someone clearly not on mute - baby crying and then she starts singing ‘the wheels on the bus’ - somehow symbolic of the shambles.”

At the meeting, Mr Johnson tussled over whether to plunge the country into a new lockdown or stick with tiers. Sir Patrick was clearly agitated at the vacillation.

Sir Patrick noted in his diary:

“PM said on call, ‘The package we have as a baseline is unlikely to get R < 1 [reproduction rate] unless local leaders go further ... Hancock says this is our last shot at avoiding national lockdown...meek as mice from Cabinet ministers.”

Worries that Britain was ‘licked as a species’

Boris Johnson wondered out loud if Britain was “licked as a species” weeks before introducing a second national lockdown.

Sir Patrick Vallance disclosed details of five hours of meetings with the prime minister in late September 2020 at which Mr Johnson also said “We [the UK] are too s***” to avoid a fresh lockdown. The entry also highlights Mr Johnson’s seeming inability to make a decision and stick to it.

In his diary entry of Sept 20, Sir Patrick wrote:

‌Tension between Vallance and Whitty revealed

A “palpable tension” emerged between the Government’s chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer over lockdown policy during the pandemic.

Sir Patrick Vallance privately referred to Sir Chris Whitty as “a delayer” of a national lockdown, as he wanted to impose tough restrictions more quickly than the then chief medical officer, who was worried about the knock-on effects of shutting down the country.

The inquiry was shown an extract from the memoir of Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Sage group of scientific advisers chaired by Sir Patrick, in which he spoke of a “friction” between the two experts and described a “a palpable tension between Patrick and Chris in the early weeks of 2020, particularly given the apparent absence of political leadership in that period”.

Sir Patrick wrote in his own nightly diary, following a meeting in Feb 2021 attended by Sir Chris:

Asked by Andrew O’Connor KC, counsel for the inquiry, if there was tension between him and the chief medical officer in the early days of the pandemic, Sir Patrick told the inquiry Sir Chris was concerned about “indirect harms” for mental health, loneliness, economic impacts and non-virus deaths, meaning he felt “pulling the trigger to do things too early could lead to adverse consequences”.

Sir Patrick added: “He would bring in views that were broad public health views looking at the consequences of interventions, as well as the direct consequences of the virus, and I think sometimes I would want to push and he might not and sometimes he was right, and sometimes I think we should have gone earlier.”

Hancock tells ‘untruths’

Sir Patrick said Matt Hancock had a habit of saying things “too enthusiastically” and without the evidence to back them up.

He also admitted that the former health secretary said things that were not true while working in No 10 during the pandemic.

Sir Patrick told 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 over-enthusiasm versus deliberate. I think a lot of it was over-enthusiasm, but he definitely said things which surprised me because I knew the evidence base wasn’t there.”

Asked if that meant Mr Hancock had said things that were untrue, Sir Patrick replied: “Yes.”

In another diary entry after a meeting which included talk about Long Covid in Sept 2020, Sir Patrick wrote that Matt Hancock had “explained things well for once”.

Rule of Six and schools rows

Sage, the Government’s Covid science advisory body, wanted to exempt children from the “Rule of Six” - but the idea was pushed back by ministers.

In a diary entry from Oct 15 2020, Sir Patrick wrote:

“Sage pushing for ‘Can’t we exempt children from rule of 6’. We said no, not unless CO (Cabinet Office) want to revisit.”

The rule, which limited the number of people who could gather in one place, was criticised at the time by the Children’s Commissioner who said it effectively kept large households in lockdown.

Scotland and Wales included an exemption for children under 12, but the Government in Westminster refused to implement a similar exemption in England until April 2021.

The Telegraph previously revealed in messages from its Lockdown Files that the Government knew there was no “robust rationale” for including children in the rule, but backed the policy regardless.

In a separate diary entry from Sir Patrick, he said Boris Johnson insisted all pupils needed to “get back to school” in August 2020, saying he would “no longer take this Covid excuse stuff”.

Sir Patrick wrote on Aug 6 2020:

‌Second lockdown graph ‘a mistake’

Sir Patrick Vallance told the Covid inquiry it was “a mistake” to present a graph to the public showing that up to 4,000 people a day could die in the second Covid wave.

Modelling from a range of universities leaked to the press on Friday Oct 30 2020 which included a “reasonable worst case scenario” from Public Health England of several thousand daily deaths.

This document was taken directly into No 10 and shown to the Prime Minister, Sir Patrick told the inquiry, who admitted he was “rather blindsided” by the emergence of the graph, which had been meant only for the SPI-M sub-committee of Sage.

Sir Patrick said at the time to Mr Johnson that he should not take much notice of this particular projection and should instead focus on the six-week medium term projections, which are far more likely and “pretty grim”.

A decision was made overnight to go back into lockdown which necessitated an emergency press conference on Saturday Oct 31 2020.

Sir Patrick thought the graph should not be shown to the public via a press conference and instead wanted to focus the messaging around lockdown on Sir Simon Stevens, then CEO of the NHS, warning of collapse of the health service.

“The message came back several times that as he had seen this slide, it was only right that the public saw it and that we had to show it,” the inquiry heard.

“In the end we agreed that we would show the slide.”

He added that Mr Johnson’s thought process “carries some legitimacy” and said the data was valid and correct.

“I just didn’t think this was a sensible thing to show at a press conference,” Sir Patrick said. “These are complicated things to explain and it wasn’t really the issue. The issue is what is going to happen in the next six weeks, not what the theoretical unmitigated scenario looks like over the next several months.

“So, I think I made a mistake to agree to show it and I think, in retrospect, I should have phoned Simon Case and said I’m being put under a lot of pressure to do something I don’t want to do.

“But I didn’t have any worries about the scientific legitimacy, I just thought it was not a sensible slide to show.”