Matt Hancock had a ‘habit’ of saying things which were not true during Covid, Sir Patrick Vallance claimed today.
No10’s ex-chief scientist, tasked with advising ministers throughout the pandemic, blamed the former Health Secretary’s ‘over-enthusiasm’ for making bold claims he ‘didn’t have a basis for’.
However, Sir Patrick also acknowledged that some of Mr Hancock’s comments may have been ‘deliberate’, in an eye-opening exchange at the Covid Inquiry.
Asked to summarise his time working with Mr Hancock, Sir Patrick said: ‘I think he had a habit of saying things which he didn’t have a basis for and he would say them too enthusiastically too early, without the evidence to back them up, and then have to backtrack from them days later.
‘I don’t know to what extent that was sort of over-enthusiasm versus deliberate – I think a lot of it was over-enthusiasm.
No10’s ex-chief scientist, tasked with advising ministers throughout the pandemic, blamed the former Health Secretary’s ‘over-enthusiasm’ for making bold claims he ‘didn’t have a basis for’
‘He definitely said things which surprised me because I knew that the evidence base wasn’t there.’
When asked by inquiry counsel Andrew O’Connor if this meant he ‘said things that weren’t true’, Sir Patrick answered ‘yes’.
Mr Hancock was also earlier this year described as a ‘proven liar’ by Boris Johnson’s maverick former aide Dominic Cummings, who pushed for him to be sacked.
Concerns over Mr Hancock’s candour were also echoed by Lord Mark Sedwill, who was Cabinet Secretary in 2020. He told the Inquiry he would have to double-check things with others ‘to make sure he wasn’t over-promising’.
And Helen MacNamara, who served as deputy cabinet secretary, also claimed in her evidence that Mr Hancock displayed ‘nuclear levels’ of overconfidence and a pattern of reassuring colleagues the pandemic was being dealt with in ways that were not true.
It is said Mr Hancock was too optimistic with his mass testing goal, and made public promises that ‘went against the advice of his own experts’.
Families of people who died in care homes also accused him of lying about throwing a ‘protective ring’ around residents.
Mr Hancock resigned in June 2021 after leaked CCTV images showed him kissing an adviser in his office in breach of his own social-distancing guidance.
However, Sir Patrick also acknowledged that some of Mr Hancock’s spiel may have been ‘deliberate’ in an eye-opening exchange at the Covid Inquiry (pictured attending the opening of Parliament earlier this month)
Sir Patrick kept a diary during the pandemic, which has been described as ‘a brain dump’ written ‘at the end of immensely stressful days to protect his mental health’
He later angered colleagues and constituents by appearing on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! in November 2022.
Having been stripped of the Conservative whip over his TV gig, he said he would not contest his West Suffolk seat at the next election when he would step down.
Mr Hancock, who penned his own explosive diaries lifting the lid on the inside story of the pandemic, took charge of the Department of Health in July 2018 — 18 months before Covid hit the UK.
Earlier in the day, Sir Patrick claimed he had ‘no intention’ for his notes taken at the time of the pandemic ‘ever seeing the light of day’.
He said the diary he kept — described as ‘a brain dump’ — was written ‘at the end of immensely stressful days’ to protect his mental health.
Explosive extracts have been shared as part of the inquiry, including revelations that Mr Johnson once described coronavirus as ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’ and that the ex-PM was ‘bamboozled’ by graphs and data presented to him.
Asked about his memoirs, which have only been shared with the Inquiry, Sir Patrick said he had ‘no intention whatsoever of these ever seeing the light of day’.
‘I sort of felt the world had probably had enough of books of reflections of people’s thoughts during Covid,’ he added.
Mr Hancock’s explosive book, Pandemic Diaries: The inside story of Britain’s battle against Covid, was published last December.
Other memoirs published in the wake of the pandemic include Spike: The Virus v the People, written by Sir Jeremy Farrar, an influential member of SAGE.
Sir Patrick also said it was ‘completely wrong’ that ministers hid behind a ‘following the science’ mantra during Covid.
He argued that there is ‘no such thing as the science’ because it is ‘a moving body of knowledge’.
The term was repeatedly wheeled out at Downing St press briefings at the height of the pandemic and used to justify lockdown restrictions.
It was taken to mean that the Government was ‘slavishly’ following advice, Sir Patrick said.
Sir Patrick, who headed up SAGE before standing down from the £185,000/year role, said: ‘The repeated assertion undermined the importance of ministerial judgement, and the accountability of ministers for decisions.’
He said he welcomed the mantra originally because it showed that ministers were ‘listening to us’ and ‘that’s not always the case in Government’, adding: ‘But I think the way in which this was heard and possibly meant, in terms of slavishly following the science, obeying it at all times, it’s completely wrong.’
‘And I can also totally agree that there is no such thing as “the science”.
‘Science by its definition is a moving body of knowledge that tries to overturn things by testing the whole time.’
Sir Patrick said ministers knew the phrase ‘was damaging’ and that it was softened at some points to ‘we’re being informed by’.
Giving evidence at Dorland House in London on Monday, also revealed he clashed with England’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Sir Chris Whitty, who he described as a ‘delayer’.
He was asked about Sir Jeremy’s book, which described a ‘friction’ between over when to impose restrictions in 2020.
Sir Patrick said Sir Chris’ role as a public health specialist meant he was ‘rightly concerned’ about the adverse effects of Covid restrictions, such as harming mental health.
The CMO argued that these factors should be considered and ‘pulling the trigger to do things too early could lead to adverse consequences’, Sir Patrick said.
While Sir Patrick said this was a ‘totally appropriate worry’, he disagreed.
He said: ‘I didn’t have exactly the same worry. I was more on the side of we need to move on this, but I think that’s partly why the two of us found it useful to work together.
‘I mean, he would bring in views that were broad public health views looking at the consequences of interventions, as well as the direct consequence of the virus.
‘And I think sometimes I would want to push and he might not, and sometimes he was right and sometimes I think we should have gone earlier. This was an occasion when I think it’s clear that we should have gone earlier.’
Extracts from Sir Patrick’s diary have been used during the inquiry to look at the work of key figures, including Cabinet ministers and ex-Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain.
One entry recorded that the former PM had referred to the Treasury as the ‘pro-death squad’ when he wanted the department to back him in arguing for a path to eased restrictions.
Sir Patrick also revealed that he had clashes with England’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Sir Chris Whitty (left), who he described as a ‘delayer’
Former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance arrives at Dorland House in London this morning to give a statement to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Sir Patrick, who served as the Government’s chief scientific adviser from 2018 to 2023, also wrote about his frustrations in dealing with the then-prime minister.
‘(Mr Johnson is) obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going,’ he said.
‘Quite bonkers set of exchanges,’ he wrote, referring to a WhatsApp group including Mr Johnson.
Sir Patrick also said that he and Sir Chris felt Number 10 officials were trying to ‘strong-arm’ them into appearing by Mr Johnson’s side at a Downing Street press conference following the then-prime minister’s ex-chief adviser Dominic Cummings’ press conference on his lockdown trip to Barnard Castle.
The journey was clearly against the rules and Mr Cummings’ televised appearance before the media was a ‘car crash’, the former chief scientist said in an entry in May 2020.
Sir Patrick has objected to the publication of his pandemic-era diary in full.
Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett has yet to make a decision on whether the entries should be disclosed in their entirety.
England’s chief medical officer Sir Chris will give evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday and his former deputy, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, on Wednesday.
They will be followed by the Government’s current chief scientific adviser, Dame Angela McLean on Wednesday, while Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Dame Jenny Harries, who is head of the UK Health Security Agency, will give evidence on Thursday.
Sir Patrick Vallance diary extracts
JUNE 10, 2020
‘I’m worried that a ‘Sage is trouble’ vibe is appearing in Number 10. It may even be the Government selected on occasion from Sage what it wanted.
‘There is a paper from Number 10 cabinet office for the one metre two/metre review. Some person has completely rewritten the science advice as though it’s the definitive version.
‘They’ve just cherry picked. Quite extraordinary.’
‘No 10. Chaos as usual. On Friday the two-metre rule meeting made it abundantly clear that no one in No 10 or the Cabinet Office really read or is taking time to understand the science advice on two metres. Quite extraordinary.’
NOVEMBER 11, 2020
‘He [Simon Case] says Number 10 is at war with itself. Carrie faction with Gove and another with spads downstairs. The PM is caught in the middle. He, the cabinet secretary, has spoken to all his predecessors … and no one has seen anything like it.’
‘This flip-flopping is impossible. One minute do more, next do nothing.
‘He doesn’t seem to push actual resolutions. Morning PM meeting, he wants everything normal by September, and then you deal with things locally and regionally.
‘He’s now completely bullish on opening everything. As another person said, it’s so inconsistent. It’s like bipolar decision-making.’
‘The ridiculous flip-flopping is getting worse.’
‘The CMO (Sir Chris Whitty) and I are both worried about the extreme inconsistency from the Prime Minister, lurching from open everything to panic.’
SEPTEMBER 19, 2020
‘He’s [Boris Johnson] all over the place [about circuit-breaker lockdown] and completely inconsistent.
‘You can see why it was so difficult to agree to lockdown the first time.’