Vallance diaries: Boris Johnson 'bamboozled' by Covid science

Then PM struggled to get his head around key terms and stats, chief scientific advisor claims

Sir Patrick Vallance
Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser during the pandemic, at a briefing in Downing Street in January 2022
(Image credit: Jack Hill - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson struggled to get his head around Covid-19 data and scientific advice during the pandemic, the diaries of Patrick Vallance reveal. 

Testifying before the Covid inquiry, the government's former chief scientific adviser read out excerpts of what the i news site described as "one of the most important contemporaneous accounts of the crisis from an insider's perspective".

The prime minister is "clearly bamboozled", Vallance wrote in May 2020 after a meeting to discuss the Covid plan for schools across the UK. "Watching PM get his head around stats is awful," the scientist wrote the following month.

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Other entries described how Johnson wondered out loud whether "we are licked as a species" ahead of plunging the country into another lockdown, and asked if graph curves were a "mirage". 

"Taken through the graphs but it was a real struggle to get him to understand them," said another excerpt.

Addressing the public hearing in London, Vallance qualified his diary extracts by saying the former PM would be "the first to admit" that scientific concepts were not his forte. Despite the "apparent frustration" exhibited in his diary, said The Telegraph, Vallance pointed out that Johnson was not the only world leader with a lack of scientific understanding.

But the former chief scientific adviser also argued that the government failed to act quickly enough during the early phases of the pandemic, when Johnson was said to have insisted that "my gut tells me this will be fine". 

And scientific advisors did not know about Rishi Sunak’s "Eat Out to Help Out" policy until it was announced, Vallance said.

His testimony, following a week's break in the inquiry, "marks the resumption of a round of politically explosive hearings", said The Independent. The public hearing in London has featured a string of officials embedded deep in the heart of government during the pandemic, including Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain and Helen MacNamara.

Johnson will appear before the inquiry in the next two weeks, while Sunak is set to give evidence before Christmas. Claims that the then chancellor said the pandemic was about "handling the scientists, not handling the virus", are expected to present difficulties for the now PM.

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