Former British prime minister Boris Johnson struggled to come to grips with much of the science during the coronavirus pandemic, his chief scientific adviser has told an inquiry.
- Sir Patrick Vallance told the inquiry Mr Johnson was “bamboozled” by graphs and stats
- He claimed the same was true of several world leaders
- Mr Johnson’s actions and decisions are being put under the microscope at the hearings
In a keenly awaited testimony to the country’s public inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, Sir Patrick Vallance said he and others faced repeated problems getting Mr Johnson to understand the science and that he changed his mind on numerous occasions.
“I think I’m right in saying that the prime minister gave up science at 15,” he said.
“I think he’d be the first to admit it wasn’t his forte and that he struggled with the concepts and we did need to repeat them, often.”
Extracts from Sir Patrick’s mostly contemporaneous diary of the time were relayed to the inquiry.
In them, he wrote that Mr Johnson was often “bamboozled” by the graphs and data and that watching him “get his head round stats is awful”.
During the pandemic, Sir Patrick was a highly visible presence in the UK.
He and the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, regularly flanked Mr Johnson at the daily COVID-19 press briefings given from the prime minister’s offices on Downing Street.
Sir Patrick, who stepped down from his role as the British government’s chief scientific adviser earlier this year, said Mr Johnson’s struggles were not unique and that many leaders had problems in understanding the scientific evidence and advice, especially in the first stages of the pandemic in early 2020.
“I would also say that the meeting that sticks in my mind was with fellow advisers from across Europe, when one of them — and I won’t say which country — declared that the leader of that country had enormous problems with exponential curves, and the telephone call burst into laughter, because it was true in every country,” he said.
“So 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 added.
Johnson ‘unable to concentrate’ after diagnosis
Mr Johnson was hospitalized with the virus in April 2020 less than two weeks after he put the country into lockdown for the first time.
Sir Patrick conceded the prime minister was “unable to concentrate” on things when he was really unwell but that after his recuperation “there was no obvious change between him and what he was like beforehand”.
The UK has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.
Mr Johnson, who was forced to step down as prime minister in September 2022 following revelations of lockdown rule-breaking parties at his Downing Street residence during the pandemic, is due to address the inquiry before Christmas.
The probe, led by retired judge Heather Hallett, is expected to take three years to complete.
Mr Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold a public inquiry after heavy pressure from bereaved families, who have hit out at the evidence emerging about his actions.
The inquiry is set to hear from current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was Mr Johnson’s Treasury chief at the time, and as such had a particular focus on the economic impacts of Britain’s lockdowns.
When he does appear at the inquiry, Mr Sunak is likely to face questioning about his “Eat Out to Help Out” initiative, which sought to encourage nervous customers back to restaurants in August 2020 as the first set of lockdown restrictions were being eased and before subsequent lockdowns were enacted.
Sir Patrick said scientists weren’t aware of the restaurant program until it was announced and that the messaging around it ran “opposite” to the need to limit mixing between households.
“I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk,” Sir Patrick said.
Soon after, positive cases started rising and the government came under huge pressure to institute a second national lockdown, something Johnson eventually announced at the end of October 2020.
The inquiry was shown a diary entry Sir Patrick wrote before that lockdown and which referred to Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief political adviser at the time, saying that Mr Sunak “thinks just let people die and that’s OK”.