Boris Johnson referred to Treasury as ‘pro-death squad’, inquiry hears

Boris Johnson referred to the Treasury as the “pro-death squad” during the pandemic, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard (PA Wire)
Boris Johnson referred to the Treasury as the “pro-death squad” during the pandemic, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard (PA Wire)

Boris Johnson referred to the Treasury as the “pro-death squad” during the pandemic, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

The former prime minister reportedly used the phrase at a meeting in January 2021 when he wanted the ministry to back him in arguing for a path to eased restrictions.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday, Mr Johnson’s pandemic-era deputy principal private secretary, Stuart Glassborow, said he did not recall hearing the term.

Reading from former chief scientific adviser to the Government Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary, where the phrase was noted, counsel to the inquiry Dermot Keating said: “There is an entry … at a meeting on 25 January 2021 the PM is recorded saying he wants Tier 3 March 1, Tier 2 April 1, Tier 1 May 1 and nothing by September.

“And he ends it by saying the team must bring in the pro-death squad from HMT”.

“I think (this) refers to a meeting from a couple of years ago. I don’t recall that specific phrase,” Mr Glassborow said.

“I see that this is from Patrick’s notebook. I wouldn’t dispute what he’s recorded, but I don’t recall the phrase at all.”

An “enormously chaotic tug of war” existed between the Treasury – which sought measures to curtail the harm to the economy from reduced footfall – and scientific and public health advice, according to an Institute for Government (IfG) report cited by Mr Keating.

Central decision-making in government for much of 2020 was “a bit of a Punch and Judy” because of the dynamic, the report said.

Asked whether he deemed this a “fair assessment,” Mr Glassborow replied: “The ability of the Cabinet Office … to bring together the analysis from the science and the health and the economic side to inform the advice it was synthesising, it was bringing together did, as you’d expect, improve over time, through 2020 and into 2021.”

Earlier, the inquiry heard from the Government’s former chief economic adviser, who said the Treasury had “no estimated cost” of a lockdown going into the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t say there was no meaningful modelling, there was a lot of analysis and modelling that happened. What I would say is there was no estimated cost of a lockdown, if you like,” Clare Lombardelli said.

“There was no way to basically say a lockdown will cost you X, or indeed a lockdown of this form will cost you X but of a different form will cost you Y.”

Ms Lombardelli denied the Treasury had been “tactical” or selective in the way it shared its analysis during the pandemic, saying its focus was on providing information to ministers in a “pressurised time”.

But she acknowledged that data could “potentially” have been shared more widely to improve the quality of modelling.

In an email chain shown to the inquiry, Dame Angela McLean, who was the deputy chief scientific adviser at the time, expressed concerns over the Treasury’s approach to analysis.

The email read: “I have emailed Chris (Whitty) and Patrick (Vallance) saying HMT (Her Majesty’s Treasury) changed the model after I QA’d (quality assured) it and I don’t know how.

“Anything HMT says about infectious disease modelling therefore has no endorsement from me – they are on their own.

“Given their inability to spot egregious errors in other things they were sent I do not have confidence in their ability to hack a simple, sensible model.”

Ms Lombardelli, who advised Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor, was also asked about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, through which discounts were offered to encourage people to get back out to restaurants in summer 2020.

Mr Glassborow said he was aware there had been no scientific consultation on the scheme’s effect on the virus before it was implemented.

Giving evidence after Ms Lombardelli, Mr Glassborow, a career civil servant, said he and others in Downing Steet knew “there hadn’t been direct CMO, CSA, Sage analysis on this policy.”

Dr Ben Warner, a former No 10 adviser who sat on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee, later gave evidence to the inquiry.

The inquiry was shown a February 2021 exchange of messages between the data scientist and fellow Number 10 official Tom Shinner in which they complained about the Treasury.

Mr Shinner shared a link to an opinion piece arguing then-chancellor Mr Sunak’s support for a return to normal threatened lives, saying: “Depressingly, I think there’s a lot of truth in this about Treasury approach.”

Dr Warner replied: “I am waging my own small war against HMT – their culture is f*****.

Another exchange of messages, this time with No 10 communications director Lee Cain, revealed aides’ frustration with the government’s handling of the second wave of the virus.

“We are so f*****,” Mr Cain wrote on October 12 2020, with Dr Warner replying: “Agreed. Feel like we are where we knew we would be three/four weeks ago.”

Dr Warner also told the inquiry he was “continually concerned” by the lack of scientific understanding across the Government outside of Sage.

He said he raised his unease in an email after lockdown, but did not share details of its contents.

“Throughout the pandemic, I thought that there was a lack of scientific capability within the different teams and groups that I was working with,” he said.

“I do think that within the – let’s call it sort of Cobra/Cabinet Office, that I was continually concerned about their understanding of what Sage were saying and how that was being translated into the documents that were produced for ministers.”

In his notes at a Sage meeting in February 2020, the adviser wrote: “NHS f***** in any scenario”.