When the pandemic arrived on our shores, the presence at the news conferences of Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Sir Chris Whitty was a reassuring one. Their sober-suited seriousness acted as ballast for the then prime minister Boris Johnson, offering stable and informed advice to a politician faced with one of the worst peacetime crises to hit the country.
Indeed, from the outset, Mr Johnson and his ministers would justify the decisions they took with the words “we are following the science”. But as Sir Patrick, then the chief scientific adviser, told the Covid inquiry, this soon began to grate with him and his colleagues.
There was, he said, no such thing as “the science”. Mr Johnson should have said that he was “informed” by the science and not given the impression that he was slavishly doing everything the scientists told him to.
But this exposes a contradiction at the heart of this inquiry. It seems intent on showing that Mr Johnson was the villain of the piece, unable to grasp scientific concepts or understand graphs, failing to attend meetings and always changing his mind. Yet at the same time, the assumption appears to be that he should have swallowed what the scientists were telling him, in particular the modelling on which much of the decision-making was based.
Sir Patrick was asked about entries in his diary, which he has given to the inquiry, concerning the former prime minister’s struggle with scientific concepts. At one point, Mr Johnson asked whether the mitigations being taken were making a difference to infections or whether the pandemic’s progress would have happened anyway. This is a perfectly reasonable question given the disruption caused by the response.
After all, if there is no such thing as “the science”, as Sir Patrick conceded, why should politicians be blamed for their reluctance to take scientific advice at face value?
In the end, Mr Johnson went along with almost everything the various scientific bodies recommended until a fourth lockdown was averted at the end of 2021. Given what we now know about the impact of the lockdowns, his scepticism was justified. The question that this inquiry needs to answer is whether the lockdowns championed by the scientists made a fundamental difference and saved lives or caused more long-term damage than the virus itself.