Experts were used as ‘human shields’ for the Government, whose officials ‘cherry-picked’ science to justify Covid decision-making, Sir Patrick Vallance’s pandemic diaries claimed.
The Chief Scientific Adviser, who regularly addressed the nation alongside ministers during press conferences, wrote that Downing Street sought to justify its actions by claiming they were ‘following the science’.
And he accused an unnamed official of ‘completely rewriting’ scientific advice on social distancing, the Covid-19 Inquiry in London heard today.
Sir Patrick’s previously undisclosed contemporaneous notes described the intervention as ‘extraordinary’.
And he described No 10 as being ‘at war with itself’, leaving then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson ‘caught in the middle’.
In diaries kept during the pandemic, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, who regularly addressed the nation alongside ministers during Covid press conferences, wrote that Downing Street sought to justify its actions by claiming they were ‘following the science’. Pictured, Sir Patrick during a Downing Street conference in December 2021
Sir Patrick also accused an unnamed official of ‘completely rewriting’ scientific advice on social distancing, the Covid-19 inquiry in London heard today. Pictured, bereaved families holding pictures of their loved ones as they stand outside the opening hearing of module two of the Covid Inquiry in London today
Others accused Mr Johnson, who was admitted to intensive care after falling ill with Covid in April 2020, of ‘flip-flopping’, and of poor and delayed decision-making.
Meanwhile Dominic Cummings, the former Downing Street senior adviser, is said to sent a message to one colleague saying the Cabinet Office was ‘terrifyingly shit’ as the Government pondered introducing the first, unprecedented lockdown measures in March 2020.
Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the Inquiry, told the first day of the probe’s second module into Government action that ‘the WhatsApp messages between … Johnson, Cummings and others betray a depressing picture of a toxic atmosphere, factional infighting and internecine attacks on colleagues’.
And he said Mr Cummings claimed Cabinet was ‘not the place for serious discussion or decisions’.
Mr Keith said: ‘It was a rubber stamp, the main function of which was to function as political theatre.
‘Perhaps more importantly, he says Cabinet committees were scripted – ministers were given scripts to read out, and conclusions were drafted in advance, so problems were simply not grappled with.’
Mr Keith suggested Mr Cummings, who left No 10 in November 2020 after a series of internal rows, was ‘himself a source of instability’.
Mr Keith also referred to several entries in Sir Patrick’s daily notebooks, revealing frictions at the heart of Government.
In one, Sir Patrick said: ‘Morning PM meeting, (Mr Johnson) wants everything normal by September… he is now completely bullish.’
In another, from May 2020, he wrote: ‘Ministers tried to make the science give the answers, rather than them making decisions.’
Sir Patrick, a member of Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), added: ‘I am worried that a “Sage is trouble” vibe is appearing in Number 10.
‘There is a paper from No 10 Cabinet Office for one metre, two metre review (into Government’s social distancing measures).
‘Some person has completely rewritten the science advice as though it’s the definitive version. They’ve just cherry picked – quite extraordinary.’
Mr Keith said the diaries ‘speak of Sage, of the CMO (Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty) and the CSA being positioned as human shields’.
He added: ‘Sage was a scientific advisory body, it produced the science.
‘It couldn’t integrate economic and societal considerations. So who did? The Government of course.’
And he said then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme designed to support the hospitality sector went ahead without the approval of the most senior scientific advisers, nor was it informed by evidence on the impact it would be likely to have on infection transmission.
Mr Keith said inquiry chairman Baroness Heather Hallett would have to determine the extent to which the Government may have dawdled while Covid cases began ramping up internationally in the start of 2020.
Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the Covid Inquiry, today told the first day of the probe’s second module into Government action that ‘the WhatsApp messages between … Johnson, Cummings and others betray a depressing picture of a toxic atmosphere, factional infighting and internecine attacks on colleagues’. And he said Mr Cummings claimed Cabinet was ‘not the place for serious discussion or decisions’. Pictured, bereaved families outside the Covid Inquiry in London today
Mr Keith also suggested Mr Cummings, who left No 10 in November 2020 after a series of internal rows, was ‘himself a source of instability’. Pictured, Dominic Cummings with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson in September 2019
He said: ‘Some argue that had the Government reacted with greater urgency and to greater effect in January and February, it might not have been forced into making the extraordinary, far-reaching decisions that it later found itself obliged to take.’
He said: ‘Never again can a virus be allowed to lead to so many deaths and so much suffering.’
The hearing opened with a 20-minute film featuring testimonies from those bereaved and affected by Covid.
One widower, Alan Handley, whose wife Susan died with Covid, hit out at government officials for flouting restrictions on the day less than a dozen people were permitted to gather for her funeral.
He said: ‘To compound the grief of my wife’s passing, on the day of her funeral — only eight people were allowed to attend — and then to find out the day of my wife’s funeral, under those draconian restrictions, that government officials were holding parties on the very same day… My wife deserved better.’
Baroness Hallett appeared moved by the footage, and said she needed to reach conclusions and make recommendations to reduce suffering in the future ‘when the next pandemic hits the UK is pressing’.
She said: ‘I say “when” the next pandemic hits the UK because the evidence in module one suggested it is not if another pandemic will hit us but when.’
More than 230,000 people have died with Covid-19 in the UK.
The inquiry, which has already cost in excess of £40million, is set to conclude in 2026.
Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? Who else will be involved? And how long will it take? EVERYTHING you need to know about the Covid Inquiry
Why was the Inquiry set up?
There has been much criticism of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, including the fact the country seemed to lack a thorough plan for dealing with such a major event.
Other criticisms levelled at the Government include allowing elderly people to be discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested, locking down too late in March 2020 and the failures of the multi-billion NHS test and trace.
Families of those who lost their loved ones to Covid campaigned for an independent inquiry into what happened.
Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was right that lessons are learned, announcing in May 2021 that an inquiry would be held.
Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? If so, when?
Mr Johnson is expected to give evidence to the second module of the Inquiry in November.
Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings and former health secretary Matt Hancock are among other high-profile names who will be hauled in front of the committee in the same month.
It is understood the inquisitions were pushed back until next month to avoid them clashing with the party conferences.
No full list of witnesses has yet been published for module two. But Mr Johnson, Mr Sunak, Mr Cummings and Mr Hancock are expected to give evidence during the first half of the month.
What topics will the inquiry cover?
There are currently six broad topics, called modules, that will be considered by the Inquiry.
Module 1 has already examined the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic.
Module 2 will, in the autumn, examine decisions taken by Mr Johnson and his then team of ministers, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees.
The decisions taken by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also be examined.
Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.
This will include the controversial use of Do Not Attempt Resuscitation notices during the pandemic.
Module 4 meanwhile will assess Covid vaccines and therapeutics.
It will consider and make recommendations on a range of issues relating to the development of Covid vaccines and the implementation of the vaccine rollout programme in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Modules 5 and 6 will open later this year, investigating government procurement and the care sector.
Who is in charge of the Inquiry?
Baroness Hallett is in the charge of the wide-reaching inquiry. And she’s no stranger to taking charge of high profile investigations.
The 72-year-old ex-Court of Appeal judge was entrusted by Mr Johnson with being chairman of the long-awaited public probe into the coronavirus crisis.
Her handling of the Inquiry will be subject to ferocious scrutiny.
Until Baroness Hallett was asked to stand aside, she was acting as the coroner in the inquest of Dawn Sturgess, the 44-year-old British woman who died in July 2018 after coming into contact with the nerve agent Novichok.
She previously acted as the coroner for the inquests into the deaths of the 52 victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombings.
She also chaired the Iraq Fatalities Investigations, as well as the 2014 Hallett Review of the administrative scheme to deal with ‘on the runs’ in Northern Ireland.
Baroness Hallett, a married mother-of-two, was nominated for a life peerage in 2019 as part of Theresa May’s resignation honours.
How long will it take?
When he launched the terms of the Inquiry in May 2021, Mr Johnson said he hoped it could be completed in a ‘reasonable timescale’.
But, realistically, it could take years.
It has no formal deadline but is due to hold hearings across the UK until at least 2025.
Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.
The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war began in 2009 but the final, damning document wasn’t released until 2016.
Meanwhile, the Bloody Sunday inquiry took about a decade.
Should a similar timescale be repeated for the Covid Inquiry, it would take the sting out of any criticism of any Tory Government failings.