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Sir Patrick Vallance gave evidence to the Covid inquiry for more than five hours about his time as the government’s chief scientific adviser and what he recorded in his daily diaries from inside the crisis.
Here are five things we learned:
Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out policy helped drive a second wave
Academics and independent scientists have long argued that the meals discount scheme, launched by the then chancellor in August 2020, fuelled cases of the virus that autumn. But Sir Patrick is the first senior figure in government from the time to confirm to the inquiry that the policy helped to drive transmission. He said it was “very difficult to see how it [the scheme] wouldn’t have had an effect on transmission”. Sir Patrick also confirmed that neither he nor chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty were told about the policy before it was announced, and they would have advised against it if they had. Mr Sunak, who will give evidence next month, has said in a written statement to the inquiry that he could not recall any concerns being made.
Boris Johnson and Mr Sunak were allegedly relaxed about people dying
On 25 October 2020, amid discussions inside government about a second lockdown, Sir Patrick recorded that both the chancellor, Mr Sunak, and Mr Johnson were against the move because it would damage the economy. Sir Patrick quoted Mr Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings as saying: “Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay”. Sir Patrick also wrote that the PM had said people at risk of dying from the virus “have had a good innings” and “most people who die have reached their time anyway”.
The former prime minister was “bamboozled” by science and “looked broken” by pandemic
Mr Johnson frequently veered from pessimism to optimism about the virus throughout the months of the crisis, according to his former chief scientific adviser, leading the latter to conclude he was “weak and indecisive”. In May 2020, as the government discussed the reopening of schools, Sir Patrick wrote that Mr Johnson was “clearly bamboozled” by the data and was asking whether “we have overdone it on the lethality of this disease”. In September of that year, as a second wave of the virus was taking off, Sir Patrick wrote that the prime minister was “distressed by seeing everyone separated and in masks” which Mr Johnson described as “mad and spooky”. He said the then PM “looked broken, head in hands a lot”. But in a meeting later that month, Mr Johnson said, according to Sir Patrick’s diaries: “Maybe we should blame ourselves. Maybe all the moonshot talk hasn’t helped.” The top scientists called this a “rare moment of truthful insight”.
Sir Patrick thought London should go into lockdown a week earlier
In the middle of March 2020, as cases were soaring and modelling was suggesting the NHS would be overwhelmed within days if drastic action was not taken, Sir Patrick used a meeting with the PM and other ministers to propose London be placed into an immediate city-wide lockdown. This would have been a week earlier than the nationwide lockdown eventually imposed on 23 March. He said progress of the epidemic in the capital was much more advanced than the rest of the UK. But his proposal was rejected at the meeting, and both the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and Sir Chris Wormald, the permanent secretary of the Department of Health, were “incandescent with rage” that Sir Patrick had breached protocol by proposing a policy at a ministerial meeting.
Gavin Williamson oversaw “complete chaos” in schools
The then education secretary, Sir Gavin Williamson, was criticised by Mr Johnson for having a likely “feeble” plan to reopen schools after the first lockdown. Most pupils did not attend class from March until September 2020. In June of that year, Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, “described keeping Gavin Williamson away from policy development but give him some illusion of ownership ‘but not his area and not his expertise’ …”, according to Sir Patrick’s diaries. The chief scientific adviser then quoted the then PM as saying: “I don’t know what Gavin’s plan for schools is but probably pretty feeble”. By September 2020, Sir Patrick wrote there was “complete chaos over schools and what they should do. No one had any answers”. By the following winter, the more contagious Alpha variant was fuelling a devastating third wave of cases and hospital admissions, and ministers were forced to consider a third lockdown. On 3 January 2021, No10 was still debating the measure but were about to let schools return – for what would end up being just one day. Sir Patrick wrote: “The NHS in London is in real trouble. The govt needs to lock down more firmly & to take the advice on schools… Called Chris [Whitty] … he is worried about individual extremist views … schools is a complete mess largely due to DfE”.