Johnson ‘perplexed’ top scientists weren’t consulted over Eat Out to Help Out

Former PM tells Covid Inquiry his repeated “let it rip” comments were just a challenge to consensus among experts
Boris Johnson with Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance in 2021. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy Live News

By Jim Dunton

07 Dec 2023

Boris Johnson has told the Covid Inquiry that he believed the government’s top scientists had been consulted over about 2020’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme to boost footfall at restaurants and cafés – and was “perplexed” by evidence suggesting they had not been.

The former prime minister’s written evidence to the inquiry states that the scheme had been “properly discussed” with  government chief medical officer Prof Sir Chris Whitty and then-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

But in his second day of evidence to the inquiry, Johnson admitted that the claim – which Whitty, Valance and other senior scientists dispute – had been an assumption.

Vallance told an inquiry session last month that it would have been “very obvious to anyone” that the scheme would cause an increase in the risk of transmission of Covid-19 and “that would have been known by ministers”.

Questioned about the lack of consultation today, Johnson acknowledged that there had been no scientists present at bilateral discussions between him, then-chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Treasury in June and July 2020 where the scheme had been developed.

“I say in my statement that I thought Chris and Patrick must have known or did know about Eat Out to Help Out and I said that because it wasn’t a very secret thing,” he said. “It was, I thought, a pretty well-publicised scheme. And I’m fairly confident that it was discussed several times in meetings at which I believed they must have been present.

“I understand that they don’t feel that they were properly consulted and I remember… but I don’t quite understand how that can have happened, to be honest.

“I remember being surprised later – I think it was in September – when Chris says ‘this is Eat Out to Help the Virus’ and I thought ‘that’s funny’, because I didn’t remember any previous controversy about it.”

Johnson said he did not understand how something as well-publicised as Eat Out to Help Out could have been “smuggled past the scientific advice”.

“Frankly, I assumed that it must have been discussed with them,” Johnson said, referring to Whitty and Vallance. “I’m perplexed by how something as significant as that can have got through… there must have been several meetings of Covid-S and Covid-O at which it was discussed.”

Covid-S and Covid-O were cabinet committees responsible for strategy and operations in relation to the pandemic.

Let it rip comments were necessary “challenge”

This morning’s Covid Inquiry session also saw Johnson quizzed about evidence that he repeatedly argued in favour of a “let it rip” approach to the virus, essentially that it should be allowed to run its course, despite the impact on elderly and vulnerable people. He was shown extracts from Vallance’s diaries providing some examples.

Johnson said the comments had provided necessary challenge to the consensus view at experts’ meetings and that the government’s actions displayed his real approach.

“If you look at what we did, we went into lockdown as soon as we could the first time around. We – sensibly – adopted a regional approach when the disease picked up again, and again went into lockdown on the 30/31st of October,” he said.

“Frankly, it does not do justice to what we did, our thoughts, our feelings, my thoughts, my feelings, to say that we were remotely reconciled to fatalities across the country. Or that I believed it was acceptable to let it rip.

“What I was asking, and I had to do this… I had to challenge the consensus in the meeting. You’ve got to understand that these meetings comprised an overwhelming number of very, very talented, brilliant public health officials, civil servants and scientists.

“I was representing the only lay person in the meeting, apart from occasionally other politicians. I had to speak for everybody who wasn’t in the meeting and who wanted these points put to the scientists.”

Johnson was specifically asked about a 20 September 2020 meeting where No.10 had requested a range of views from academics who Vallance described in an e-mail as “the let-it-rip brigade”.

The former PM said it had transpired that those scientists had not supported a “let-it-rip” approach, and that he was already resigned for the eventual need for a second national lockdown at the time.

Johnson said he was “thinking ahead” to where the nation was going to end up in a few weeks and had wanted to “fortify” himself against opposing arguments.

Current chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McClean described one of the participants in the 20 September meeting as a “fuckwitt”, according to WhatsApp transcripts published by the inquiry in October.

Her message exchange with infectious-disease modelling expert Prof John Edmunds also described then-chancellor Rishi Sunak as “Dr Death”.

The inquiry continues.

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