- By Nick Triggle and Jim Reed
- BBC News
Scientists were not aware of Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme until it was announced, Sir Patrick Vallance has said.
Sir Patrick – then the government’s chief scientific adviser – was giving evidence to the Covid inquiry about major decisions taken in the pandemic.
He said it would have been “obvious” the hospitality scheme would cause an increase in transmission risk.
He also said the then-PM Boris Johnson had been “bamboozled” by some science.
He said the first lockdown at the start of the pandemic was imposed about a “week too late”.
And he criticised the “lack of leadership” in the run-up to the second national lockdown in autumn 2020.
In a witness statement released on Monday evening, he said there were times that he considered resigning.
“Like many others I received abuse and threats and I was concerned for the wellbeing and safety of my family,” he said.
“At times those factors did lead me to question whether I should continue.
“I also found people breaking the lockdown rules very difficult and considered what I should do in response, but decided that I would help most by continuing with my job.”
He also said Dominic Raab led more effectively than Mr Johnson when he was briefly put in charge of the pandemic response while the prime minister was in hospital with Covid.
Sir Patrick was questioned for about five hours on Monday about decisions taken in and around Downing Street during the pandemic, and excerpts of his diary were read out.
Sir Patrick was asked about the Eat out to Help Out scheme – a scheme devised by the then chancellor Mr Sunak to boost the hospitality sector in the post-lockdown summer of 2020 by offering diners a discount in cafes and restaurants.
A section of Mr Sunak’s witness statement was read out in which he had said no-one had raised concerns with him about the scheme in the summer of 2020.
But Sir Patrick said: “We didn’t see it before it was announced and I think others in the Cabinet Office also said they didn’t see it before it was formulated as policy. So we weren’t involved in the run-up to it.”
He added: “I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been known by ministers.”
Asked about Mr Sunak’s understanding of the risks, Sir Patrick said: “If he was in the meetings, I can’t recall which meetings he was in.
“But I’d be very surprised if any minister didn’t understand that these openings carried risk.”
Sir Patrick also criticised some of the Treasury’s input into pandemic decision-making.
In a diary entry from October 2021, he described some economic predictions as being based on “no evidence, no transparency, pure dogma and wrong throughout”.
When questioned on the remarks, he said they were probably made late at night in “frustration”, but he believes there was an “imbalance” between the transparency of economic and scientific advice during the pandemic.
He added that the advice was often “not beloved” and advisers sometimes had to “work doubly hard to make sure that the science evidence and advice was being properly heard”.
A diary entry mentioned that at one economics-based meeting Mr Sunak had said “it’s all about handling the scientists, not handling the virus”, without realising that Sir Chris Whitty was in the room.
‘Weak, indecisive PM’
His diaries showed he was particularly critical of political decision-making in the run-up to the second national lockdown in the autumn of 2020.
He wrote in his diary that by mid-October, Mr Johnson had become frustrated by talk of a second lockdown.
He reports him as saying it was time to let it rip – as “most people who died have reached their time anyway”.
The diary excerpts say that by late October, Mr Johnson had appeared to swing behind the idea of more restrictions, saying the numbers were “terrible”.
“He is so inconsistent,” Sir Patrick writes, on 28 October. “We have a weak, indecisive PM.”
Mr Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, had said: “[Then Chancellor] Rishi [Sunak] thinks just let people die and that’s OK”, according to Sir Patrick’s diary.
Sir Patrick wrote at the time: “This all feels like a complete lack of leadership.”
Commenting on it now, Sir Patrick said he had been recording what must have been “quite a shambolic day”.
In an entry written at the start of the pandemic, in May 2020, he wrote that Mr Johnson was “clearly bamboozled” by some of the science.
He said it was hard work to make sure that the then-prime minister “had understood what a graph of a piece of data was saying”.
But he adds that Mr Johnson wasn’t alone among world leaders in struggling to understand “complicated” data.
Sir Patrick also revealed he had sometimes disagreed with the UK’s chief medical adviser, Prof Sir Chris Whitty, about whether to introduce restrictions, and that “sometimes [Sir Chris] was right”.
However, he said his belief that the March 2020 lockdown came too late – which Sir Chris has disagreed with – had been vindicated.
“This was an occasion when I think it’s clear that we should have gone earlier,” he said, meaning that the measures should have started a week sooner.
Sir Chris’s remit included public health, so he had been more focused on the consequences to people’s health of restrictions, Sir Patrick said. And it had been “useful and helpful” to debate these with him inside government.
Turning to events later in the year, Sir Patrick said more mistakes were made when some areas like Leicester and Liverpool were put into enhanced measures.
“The temptation is always to make [the restrictions] as limited as possible – and then that fails because the surrounding areas immediately got overwhelmed,” he said.
This had been seen very clearly in October 2020 under the tier system of regional restrictions, where “every MP” had argued their area should not be placed in a higher tier, with tougher rules on meeting up and opening businesses, Sir Patrick said.
Sir Patrick also said of former health secretary Matt Hancock: “I think he had a habit of saying things which he didn’t have a basis for and he would say them too enthusiastically, too early, without the evidence to back them up, and then have to backtrack from them days later.
“I don’t know to what extent that was sort of over-enthusiasm versus deliberate – I think a lot of it was over-enthusiasm. He definitely said things which surprised me because I knew that the evidence base wasn’t there.”
When asked if this meant he “said things that weren’t true”, Sir Patrick answered “yes”.
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