Sunak and Johnson thought it was 'okay to let people die' during pandemic, Covid Inquiry hears

20 November 2023, 18:14

Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser to the government, gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry today
Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser to the government, gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry today. Picture: Getty/Alamy
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

Both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak thought it was 'okay to let people die' during the pandemic, the Covid Inquiry has heard.

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The revelation came as Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser during the pandemic, gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry.

The Inquiry heard that the former Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, wanted to let Covid - despite warnings that many people would die, while Mr Sunak also thought that was "okay".

Sir Patrick noted a particularly "shambolic"day on October 25, 2020, as the UK headed towards a second lockdown.

According to his diary, Mr Johnson wanted to let Covid "spread", while Dominic Cummings - the PM's former chief adviser - wrote that the former Chancellor, Mr Sunak, agreed.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak head to the weekly cabinet meeting held at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. Picture: Getty

The extract read: "PM meeting - begins to argue for letting it all rip. Saying yes there will be more casualties but so be it - 'they have had a good innings'.  

"Not persuaded by (Jon) Edmunds, (Neil) Ferguson, (Jeremy) Farrar. PM says 'the population just has to behave doesn't it'.

"Heat maps 'I have the necrotising maps' so depressing. DC says trajectory will leave us in Nov - much as where we were in 1st week of April.   

"Chris quite bullish about being able to take the brakes off more in April.

"Goes on about Gulf War Syndrome again... PM getting very frustrated - throwing papers down. PM then back on to 'most people who die have reached their time anyway'."

"DC arguing we need to save lives - it is not democratically possible to follow another route... "DC argued again (rightly) that a lockdown's coming and therefore do it sooner rather than later.  

"PM concludes, 'Looks like we are in a really tough spot, a complete shambles.'  

His entries went on: "Conclusion - beef up the tiers - consider a national lockdown - decide by when. DC says 'Rishi thinks just let people die and that's okay'.

"This all feels like a complete lack of leadership."   

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By the following day, Mr Johnson's view had changed, as he described the mounting Covid death toll as "terrible".

The inquiry also heard that Sir Patrick wrote that "we have a weak indecisive PM" and described the right-wing press as "culpable" in decision-making on Covid measures.  

Asked about the diary entries, Downing Street declined to say whether Mr Sunak thought it would be OK to "just let people die" during the pandemic, saying it would be for the Prime Minister to set out his position during evidence before the Covid Inquiry.  

"The Prime Minister is due to give evidence before the inquiry at the time of their choosing. That's when he'll set out his position," Mr Sunak's official spokesman said.  

Sir Patrick Vallance's pandemic diary entries will be read out at the inquiry on Monday.
Sir Patrick Vallance's pandemic diary entries will be read out at the inquiry on Monday. Picture: Alamy

Meanwhile, the Inquiry also heard how Mr Johnson was 'bamboozled' by Covid science and at times 'looked broken' when dealing with the response to the pandemic, the inquiry heard today.

The inquiry heard excerpt’s from Sir Patrick’s diary, including one occasion during a meeting about schools where the then PM was “clearly bamboozled” but scientific evidence.

The entry from May 2020 reads: "Late afternoon meeting with PM on schools. My God this is complicated and models will not provide the answer. PM is clearly bamboozled".

In a further extract, in September 2020, Sir Patrick describes Mr Johnson’s behaviour after he returned from a Battle of Britain memorial service.

Vallance's diary reads: "[PM] starts challenging numbers and questioning whether they really translate into deaths."

Mr Johnson "looked broken - head in hands a lot", and quotes the PM saying "We are too shit to get our act together".

Diary entries written during the pandemic were a way to ‘maintain inner calm’ and ‘decompress at the end of the day’, Sir Patrick Vallance told the inquiry.

In his opening witness statement on Monday, Sir Patrick told the inquiry that his diary entries were a way to “maintain some form of inner calm, protect my mental health and keep my family out of the pressures I faced”.

Sir Patrick has prepared a 200-page witness statement for Monday’s hearing.

Questioned by Andrew O’Connor KC, the former scientific adviser said he had “no intention” of ever publishing the entries.

“These were a way of decompressing at the end of the day,” he told the inquiry. “Often quite late in the evening”.

The notes were provided to the inquiry after a disclosure request - Sir Patrick provided the entries in full despite them containing “sensitive, personal” information.

“Some of it I look back and think 'well that seems like a sensible series of reflections over that period,” he continued. But some, however, he said contradict each other.

“Others I look back and I can see I might have written something one day and then two days later written something that said, 'actually I don't agree with myself on that', which may have been how somebody had behaved or somebody made an observation.

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"So they were very much instant thoughts."

Some 25 extracts have been read out to the inquiry so far.

Among them, Sir Patrick accuses officials of “cherry picking’ scientific advice and ministers of using scientists as “human shields”.

He also criticises Boris Johnson’s decision-making, branding him “all over the place” and criticising his “ridiculous flip-flopping”.

"The right wing press are culpable and we have a weak, indecisive PM," he wrote in October 2020.

Mr O’Connor asked Sir Patrick if he thinks his former role should be held by someone with a medical background, given the inevitability of another pandemic.

Sir Patrick said the role is not “set up primarily for pandemic preparedness, it is set up to provide science advise across Government”.

“The great crisis that all Governments face for the next many decades is the climate challenge, so it would be equally well-argued that you could have somebody who has that expertise,” he added.