• Saturday, 13 April 2024

Boris Johnson ‘bamboozled’ by graphs during pandemic, inquiry hears

Boris Johnson ‘bamboozled’ by graphs during pandemic, inquiry hears

London, 20 November 2023 (PA Media/dpa/MIA) - Former British prime minister Boris Johnson was “bamboozled” by the graphs and data presented to him during the pandemic and was sometimes a “broken” man, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.


Diary entries by former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance were shown to the inquiry on Monday as Vallance described dealing with the former prime minister.


The inquiry heard how Johnson sometimes struggled to retain scientific information, was “clutching at straws” and at one point queried whether Covid was spreading “because of the great libertarian nation we are”.


One of Vallance’s diary entries from May 4, 2020 said: “Late afternoon meeting with the PM on schools. My God, this is complicated. Models will not provide the answer. PM is clearly bamboozled.”


Other entries, also written in May 2020, said: “PM asking whether we’ve overdone it on the lethality of this disease. He swings between optimism pessimism, and then this.


“PM still confused on different types of test. He holds it in his head for a session and then it goes.”


In June, Vallance wrote: “Watching the PM get his head round stats is awful. He finds relative and absolute risk almost impossible to understand.”


Later, in September 2020, Johnson is talked through some graphs, after which Vallance wrote: “It is difficult, he asks questions like ‘which line is the dark red line?’ – is he colourblind? Then ‘so you think positivity has gone up overnight?’ then ‘oh god bloody hell’. But it is all the same stuff he was shown six hours ago.”


Under questioning by Andrew O’Connor, counsel to the inquiry, Vallance said: “I think I’m right in saying that the prime minister gave up science at 15.


“I think he’d be the first to admit it wasn’t his forte and that he struggled with the concepts and we did need to repeat them. Often.”


However, Vallance said this issue was not unique to the UK and advisers in other European countries had suggested at least one other leader had also struggled.


“So I do not think that there was necessarily a unique inability to grasp some of these concepts with the prime minister at the time, but it was hard work sometimes to try and make sure that he had understood what a particular graph or piece of data was saying.”


Another notebook entry from Vallance described a “broken” Johnson being distressed by seeing everyone in masks at a Battle of Britain memorial service in September 2020.


It read: “5 hr of meetings with the PM. He came back from Battle of Britain memorial service and was distressed by seeing everyone separated and in masks – ‘mad and spooky, we have got to end it’.


“Starts challenging numbers and questioning whether they really translate into deaths. Says it is not exponential etc etc.


“Looked broken – head in hands a lot. ‘Is it because of the great libertarian nation we are that it spreads so much.' ‘Maybe we are licked as a species’… ‘We are too shit to get our act together.’


“We went round in circles and then the famous whiteboard emerges.


“Discussed Package A (mild [increase] measures) and Package C (full lockdown) and when and how to do a circuit breaker […] eventually sort of agree circuit breaker and stricter measures […) but PM keeps clutching at straws.”


One entry from September 7, 2020, said: “Chief constables have said current rules too complex and difficult to police.


“PM looking glum. Then suddenly – ‘Is the whole thing a mirage? The curves just follow a natural pattern despite what you do’. Incredulity in the room.


“The whole meeting carefully manages the PM (is it always like this?) and he eventually approves the measures – really just reinforcing and enforcing what we should be doing anyway…”


It concludes: “I leave and comment again that PM does not look like a man enjoying his role.”


Photo: MIA archive