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Boris Johnson 'Bamboozled' by Graphs, COVID Inquiry Hears

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 Sir Patrick Vallance were shown to the inquiry on Monday as Sir Patrick described dealing with the "weak" former Prime Minister.

The inquiry heard how Mr 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 Sir Patrick's diary entries from 4 May 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, Sir Patrick 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, Mr Johnson is talked through some graphs, after which Sir Patrick 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."

Boris Johnson "Looked Broken"

Under questioning by Andrew O'Connor KC, counsel to the inquiry, Sir Patrick 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, Sir Patrick 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 Sir Patrick described a "broken" Mr 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 s**t to get our act together.'

During the course of Monday morning, the inquiry also heard:

  • There was a short period after Mr Johnson suffered COVID where he was "really unwell" and struggled to "concentrate on things".
  • Asked whether there was tension between himself and England's chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick said Sir Chris was of the view that "pulling the trigger to do things too early could lead to adverse consequences" such as the indirect harm of people isolating, loneliness and deaths from other causes. Sir Patrick said these were appropriate concerns for Sir Chris but that he had wanted to move on COVID earlier.
  • Sir Patrick left the permanent secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care, Sir Chris Wormald, "incandescent with rage" for suggesting more stringent measures were needed to curb virus spread in March 2020. Sir Patrick said Sir Chris had told him it "was the manner of raising it in the meeting rather than the substance that he was concerned about", but Sir Patrick said: "I stand by the fact that I think it was the right thing to say at the time."
  • Sir Patrick was concerned over the Government's "operational response" to limiting the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic's early months.
  • There was an "urgent recognition" in mid-March 2020 that intense measures were needed to stop the spread of coronavirus and "that we were much further ahead in the pandemic than we realised".