Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser when the pandemic started in 2020, has been giving evidence at the public inquiry into Covid on Monday.
Sir Patrick recorded his thoughts most evenings as handwritten notes, saying they were a “form of release” which helped him focus on the next day’s challenges.
When he appeared in the inquiry’s first phase he described them as a “brain dump” and argued that they should not be made public in full as they were never intended for public consumption.
Those notes have been handed over in full to the inquiry’s legal team, and about 25 short extracts have already been read in open court when other witnesses were being questioned.
The first entry from his diaries we know about so far comes from May 2020, and focuses on the debate around how to release lockdown restrictions.
Sir Patrick was responsible for chairing the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), a committee of scientists, mainly from academia, responsible for advising ministers on Covid.
But his diary reveals he is concerned about the “following the science” mantra coming from the government.
In another entry he worries that scientists are being used as “human shields”.
He writes: “Ministers try to make the science give the answers rather than them making decisions.
“I am [worried] that a ‘Sage is trouble’ vibe is appearing in No 10.
“Some person has completely rewritten the science advice as though it is the definitive version. They have just cherry picked. Quite extraordinary…”
Boris Johnson’s special adviser Dominic Cummings (DC) is giving his press conference in the Downing Street Rose garden after the Mirror and Guardian newspapers reveal he has travelled to Barnard Castle, near Durham, during lockdown.
Sir Patrick writes: “PM seems very bullish and wants to have everything released sooner and more extremely than we would.
“Wants to divert from the DC fiasco (caught have gone [sic] to Durham – clearly against the rules).
“All very worrying. Cabinet all upbeat and ‘breezy confidence’ – incredibly alarming.
“It was another rambling opening to Cabinet. Quite extraordinary.”
On the same day, Sir Patrick’s diaries reveal that he and Prof Sir Chris Whitty do not like the idea of taking part in a daily news conference, as they know they will be asked about Mr Cummings.
Sir Patrick says communications chiefs Lee Cain and James Slack plus civil servant Martin Reynolds tried to convince them, but they managed to avoid doing it in the end.
“Chris and I not at all keen to do the press conference.
“All highly political and dwarfed by DC.
“We tried to get out of it by suggesting that it was not the right day to announce new measures and that this would undermine our credibility.”
Sir Patrick makes diary notes on the decision to move to step 4 of the roadmap for releasing lockdown restrictions, which removed all legal limits on socialising and life events as the school year ended (announced on 12 July).
He is getting frustrated around this time with the inconsistency in Mr Johnson’s decision-making.
He writes: “PM cancelled the big announcement and has gone more cautious (for now).
“Simon Case taking one day at a time. PM is simply not consistent (as he wasn’t at the beginning).”
Sir Patrick notes that Mr Johnson is increasingly convinced the economy needs to be kept open, because it is mainly older people who are being affected by Covid.
He writes: “PM WhatsApp group kicks off because PM has read in FT that the IFR [infection fatality rate] is 0.04%.
“Age-related IFR explained and that overall looks more like 0.4 to 1%.
“He is obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going.
“Quite a bonkers set of exchanges.”
By this point, Sage’s scientific advisers have been pressing for tougher restrictions as Covid cases start to rise sharply.
New measures (rule of six, then tiers) are brought in, but there is no full lockdown until 5 November.
He writes: “Very bad meeting in No.10…
“PM talks of Medieval measures than ones being suggested.
“Perhaps we should look at another approach and apply different values.
“Surely this just sweeps through in waves like other natural phenomena and there is nothing we can do.
“As Simon Ridley said final slide, PM said, ‘Whisky and a revolver.’ He was all over the place.”
Sir Patrick writes: “PM meeting – begins to argue for letting it all rip. Saying yes there will be more casualties but so be it – ‘they have had a good innings’.
“Not persuaded by Edmonds, Ferguson, Farrar [scientists on emergency advisory group].
“PM saying ‘the population just has to behave doesn’t it!’.
“PM getting very frustrated – throwing papers down. PM back on to ‘Most people who die have reached their time anyway’.”
We do not know the context around Sir Patrick’s first entry on this day.
“The right-wing press are culpable & we have a weak indecisive PM.”
The following month is a chaotic time in Downing Street as Mr Cain and then Mr Cummings leave their roles amid rumours of clashes with Mr Johnson’s then-fiancee Carrie Symonds.
Sir Patrick did not always agree with England’s chief medical officer (CMO) Sir Chris on how strict social restrictions should be to manage rising case numbers.
While the CMO thought the public would rebel against rules, Sir Patrick was keen to introduce them earlier.
In this day’s diary entry, he writes: “CMO again talks about going ‘too early’ and losing people. Is he really right about this? I think we need to go sooner and harder.”
It would be a mistake to think all of the diary entries paint Mr Johnson as resisting tougher Covid rules.
Here, in mid-November, he is, apparently, the one pushing for harder action.
“PM is the only rational voice in the political side [ … ]
“PM – arguing for going harder and says, ‘More jobs will go if this thing takes off again’.”
By now the UK has a vaccine against Covid-19. In this entry, the first line refers to a plan to vaccinate 15 million people by 15 February.
He writes: “PM says 15M Vx Feb 15, 20M March 1st, April 30M & by then we must do something.
“Says he wants Tier 3 March 1, Tier 2 April 1, & Tier 1 May 1st & nothing by September … ends by saying the team must bring in the ‘pro death squad’ from HMT.”
Mention of the “pro death squad” at the Treasury is a reference to the fact they are the ones pushing for opening up quickly. Mr Johnson wanted complete unlocking with no remaining restrictions by September.
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