At this week’s official crisis inquiry, explosive evidence regarding the tensions and disagreements that existed between the nation’s top scientific advisers, his ministers, and the then-prime minister Boris Johnson at critical points during the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to be made public. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, will testify on Monday during an all-day session that is expected to shed new light on the chaos in government as the virus spread around the world. His explosive private diary entries are being quoted selectively at the inquiry.
The other leading scientists who accompanied ministers at the live daily Covid press conferences will observe Vallance in the witness box.
On Tuesday, Prof. Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, will be in attendance all day. Then, on Wednesday, the inquiry will hear testimony from Prof. Jonathan Van-Tam, the former deputy chief medical officer, and Prof. Dame Angela McLean, the current chief scientific adviser. In the weeks following the Treasury-inspired “eat out to help out” scheme in August 2020, Prof. McLean referred to then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak as “Dr Death.”
A question that will undoubtedly be investigated is if scientists were sufficiently consulted at critical junctures, such as regarding the “eat out to help out” initiative, which provided a restaurant bill discount to the public in an effort to encourage them to dine out.
The investigation is also expected to look into whether the scientists were under political pressure to follow the government’s lead as members of the team, and as a result, the public was not informed of the full scope of the risks that they were aware of.
According to a former government minister who was aware of the Covid threat at the time, “it was politically imperative in the early going not to overstate or overreact.”
The minister stated that these scientists were not used to seeing politicians at televised press conferences in Downing Street.
It’s clear that they felt pressed for time and framed their comments accordingly. That was undoubtedly a problem.
Evidence that has already surfaced suggests that the scientists may have been more vocal in their private warnings about the Covid pandemic than they were in public on a number of occasions. This presents a potential challenge for them.
It has previously surfaced that on February 6, 2020, Dominic Cummings, the former chief adviser to President Johnson, shared on WhatsApp with a group of No 10 aides that Vallance had just informed him that the virus was “probably out of control now and will sweep the world.”
Whitty and Vallance, however, briefed reporters on February 25, 2020, stating that data from China indicated the virus might still be contained.