Former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary records expose a picture of inconsistency and “flip-flopping” in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the crisis has heard.
On the opening day of the latest module of the inquiry, lead counsel Hugo Keith KC quoted extensively from Vallance’s daily notes. He used the observations to highlight areas that the module – which is looking at the UK’s core decision making and political governance in relation to the health emergency – will explore.
During the pandemic, then-prime minister Boris Johnson and other members of his cabinet would routinely describe themselves as “following the science” when setting out policy to the public.
In his opening statement to the module, Keith said an important area of investigation would be how No.10 and the centre of government was configured to weigh up the advice it was given. He said that would include the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Vallance, and chief medical officer Prof Sir Chris Whitty – but would not be limited to them.
Keith said the Vallance diaries spoke of SAGE, Whitty and the chief scientific adviser being positioned as “human shields” by the government.
The lead counsel said that in early May 2020 Vallance wrote: “Ministers try to make the science give the answers rather than them making the decisions.”
Another entry described "No.10 chaos as usual". He said it had been "abundantly clear" during a meeting on social distancing that no-one in No.20 or the Cabinet Office "had really read or taken time to understand the science advice on two metres".
“Quite extraordinary,” he added.
Keith told the inquiry that in the first national lockdown growing political and press pressure for a complete lifting of restrictions had seen a divide open up between SAGE’s advice and the preparedness of government to keep restrictions in place.
He said that on 21 March 2020 Vallance’s diary had recorded: “SAGE position maintained and clear, but chancellor of the exchequer really pushing for more.” At the time, the chancellor was current PM Rishi Sunak.
It continued: “Simon Case [who was then a very senior civil servant – but not yet cabinet secretary] commented it was like children pushing their parents to see how far they could go without being smacked. Totally inappropriate way for the politicians to go on, and put SAGE in a terrible position.”
The inquiry heard that Vallance’s diary recorded increased indecision in No.10 as the first lockdown’s restrictions were relaxed in July 2020.
Keith said the diaries reflected a “growing level of concern” about the government’s approach. He read one entry from the middle of the month that stated: “The ridiculous flip-flopping’s getting worse.”
He added that on 28 July Vallance wrote: “The chief medical officer and I are both worried about the extreme inconsistency from the prime minister – lurching from ‘open everything’ to ‘panic’.”
Keith said evidence suggested that neither Whitty nor Vallance had been consulted on Sunak and the Treasury’s Eat Out to Help Out drive to encourage the public back to cafes, bars and restaurants in August 2020. He added that the discount scheme had also not been the subject of advice from SAGE or its subgroups SPI-M or SPI-B.
“Prof Whitty and Prof Vallance’s written evidence is that had they been consulted they would have advised it was highly likely to increase transmission,” Keith said. “The inquiry will be hearing from the then-chancellor of the exchequer, Mr Sunak MP, on this.”
The lead counsel said evidence was mixed on whether Eat Out to Help Out actually had driven up infection rates, and that the inquiry would not be asked to make a decision.
However, Keith noted that health secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, had urged future cab sec Case to push for the scheme not to be extended because of its impact.
He told the inquiry: “On 24 August, Mr Hancock sent a WhatsApp message to Mr Case, who was still then the second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office: ‘Just want to let you know directly we’ve had lots of feedback that Eat Out to Help Out is causing problems in our intervention areas. I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious. So please, please let’s not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension’.”
Keith said the current module of the inquiry would also look at the impact of the Partygate scandal and former chief adviser to the prime minister Dominic Cummings’s breaches of lockdown rules, both of which he said had “badly damaged” confidence in government.
“The inquiry will need to explore the critical need in a crisis for government to maintain public confidence through leadership,” he said.
The inquiry continues.