Undue weight was given to scientific advice over arguments for protecting the economy during the Covid pandemic, one of the most high-profile supporters of lockdowns has said.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser, said deficiencies in the economic arguments being put forward caused “a real problem in terms of how decisions could be made”.
Sir Patrick, who was among those pushing for what was described as a “go hard, go early” policy on curbing freedoms, also said it was a “mistake” for the Government to use a worst-case scenario projection of 4,000 deaths per day to help justify the second lockdown in autumn 2020.
Along with Prof Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, Sir Patrick was an almost constant presence on the nation’s television screens during the pandemic, flanking Boris Johnson at daily press conferences to update the nation.
Giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry in London, Sir Patrick said he had referred to Sir Chris in his diary as “a delayer” because his colleague was worried about the long-term health risks associated with shutting down the country, whereas Sir Patrick felt there was a clear need for early lockdowns.
He said: “He was definitely of the view that the treatment and the result of that treatment needed to be considered together and pulling the trigger to do things too early could lead to adverse consequences … I didn’t have exactly the same worry. I was more on the side of ‘we need to move on this’.”
Despite his enthusiasm for locking down the country, Sir Patrick said the Treasury had failed to push back hard enough when the Government insisted it was “following the science”.
He said: “The science advice was there for everybody to see. The economic advice wasn’t and it wasn’t obvious what it was based upon and therefore [it] unduly weighted the science advice in the public mind, I think, and created a real problem in terms of how decisions could be made.”
He said he had suggested that an economic advisory group, similar to the scientific advisory group Sage, should be set up and “it had one meeting but it wasn’t pursued”.
In private diary entries he criticised the Treasury, then under Rishi Sunak as chancellor, saying that its internal predictions for the economy were based on: “No evidence, no transparency, pure dogma and wrong throughout.”
‘Mistake’ to show slide detailing worst-case scenario for deaths
Sir Patrick said that when Mr Johnson announced a second national lockdown on Oct 31 2020, he was told to show the public an information slide with a worst-case scenario for deaths, which he insisted was a bad idea.
He said: “The message came back several times that the PM thought that as he had seen the slide it was only right that the public should see it.
“It was agreed that I should show that slide but try to move on to the medium-term projection which was the real thing. I think I made a mistake by agreeing to show it.”
Less than a week later, the Office for Statistics Regulation criticised Sir Patrick for failing to release the data and assumptions behind the worst-case scenario projection of 4,000 deaths per day by December 2020 if no action was taken.
Mr Johnson had been forced into a hasty announcement of the lockdown after plans for it were leaked to the media, and Sir Patrick said the then prime minister spent three to four hours on the phone before that day’s press conference trying to explain his reasoning to Tory MPs and other critics.
He said there was nothing wrong with the 4,000 deaths projection in terms of its scientific validity, but: “I just thought it was not a sensible science slide to show.”
The inquiry was shown another entry from Sir Patrick’s diaries in October 2020 in which he noted that Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s senior adviser, had claimed: “Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay.”