Covid Inquiry: Chief scientific adviser Angela McLean dubbed Sunak ‘Dr Death’

Texts also reveal expletive-filled exchange about fellow scientist as infections began to rise in autumn 2020
Prof Dame Angela McLean Photo:GOV.UK

By Jim Dunton

20 Oct 2023

The government’s current chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McLean dubbed Rishi Sunak “Dr Death” in the weeks following 2020’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, the Covid Inquiry has heard.

A WhatsApp exchange between McLean and infectious-disease modelling expert Prof John Edmunds was shown as part of evidence to yesterday’s hearing of the inquiry, which is currently probing the UK’s core decision-making and political governance during the pandemic.

The private exchange came during a 20 September 2020 meeting with the then-prime minister Boris Johnson and a selection of scientific advisers that was called to gather opinions on the likely future direction of the virus.

At the time McLean was chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence and chair of SPI-M-O subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Edmunds was – and still is – chair in infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

An email from the government’s chief scientific adviser at the time, Patrick Vallance, to Edumnds said the meeting had been called to allow Johnson to “hear a range of views on the forward look (mainly from the ‘let it rip brigade’)”.

The meeting was also attended by Sunak, who was then chancellor of the exchequer.

A transcript of the messages sent between McLean and Edmunds during the meeting shows McLean exclaim a one point “Dr Death the chancellor”,  before adding “In ONS you’d see it”.

At yesterday’s hearing inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Edmunds whether he believed those comments to be a reference to Sunak and HM Treasury’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which ran during August 2020 and encouraged people back to restaurants and pubs.

Edmunds said he couldn’t remember the exact context of the comments. But he subsequently set out his concerns about the scheme.

“Still angry” about Eat Out to Help Out

“To be honest, it made me angry. And I'm still angry about it,” he said of Eat Out to Help Out. “It was one thing taking your foot off the brake, which is what we'd been doing by easing the restrictions, but to put your foot on the accelerator seemed to me to be perverse.

“And to spend public money to do that when 45,000 people had just died. I couldn't ... you know, I don't want to blame Eat Out to Help Out for the second wave, because that's not the case, but just the optics of it were terrible.

“Yes, the pub and restaurant sector really needed support, I wasn't against that at all, they did need a great deal of support. But this was not really just them, they could have just given them money. This was a scheme to encourage people to take an epidemiological risk.”

Elsewhere in the 20 September 2020 exchange McClean, who became chief scientific adviser in April this year, described another contributor to the PM’s meeting as a “fuckwitt”.

The exchange showed Edmunds responding “every statistic is wrong”.

Edmunds told yesterday’s session he believed the comments referred to Prof Carl Heneghan, an Oxford University specialist in evidence-based medicine, who he said had made “really basic epidemiological errors, the sorts of ones that we teach our students on day one”.

Edmunds said he had interrupted Heneghan’s contribution to the session, which had been the source of a complaint.

Heneghan also gave evidence at yesterday’s session and was asked about McLean’s comment.

“I would never in a professional capacity use such language about other individuals,” he said.

“It is not unusual to find yourself in disagreement and a position of disagreement. We call it uncertainty.”

But he added: “That sort of language would mean I would become resistant to any other's viewpoint or discussion. And I think that's unhelpful.

“And it goes back to why we were brought in in the first place, is to try to propose a viewpoint that obviously was not being aired in Sage, was not being aired at any point of the government advice.”

Vallance diary pages to stay private for now

At yesterday’s session inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett also issued a decision on the publication-in-full of Patrick Vallance’s diaries from his time as chief scientific adviser during the pandemic.

Extracts from the personal diaries have so far provided a useful – and sometimes damning – insight on decision-making at the heart of government during the crisis, but unlike other evidence, full pages have not been published after hearings.

Responding to a legal challenge from the BBC and seven other media organisations Hallet said issues relating to details of “an entirely private nature” arose in the Vallance notes that were absent for other documents provided to the inquiry.

“The issues of publishing the whole page upon which an extract appears and publishing the whole of the notes are inextricably linked,” she said. “In my view, therefore, it would be premature to decide the first issue now.”

Hallett said she wanted to see how Vallance’s notes were used in future hearings before reaching a view on how to balance the former chief scientific adviser’s privacy rights with public-interest disclosure considerations.

The inquiry continues.

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