‘Watching the PM get his head round stats is awful’

Evidence considered by the ongoing Covid Inquiry – including diary entries and in-person testimony – indicates that Boris Johnson and other political leaders could often be ‘bamboozled’ by data and scientific concepts

During the coronavirus crisis top advisers often found it “hard work” to explain data and science to a prime minister that was “bamboozled” by the information and concepts presented, the Covid-19 Inquiry has been told.

The public inquiry has this week examined notes written during the pandemic by the country’s former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – who also gave evidence in person.

He told the inquiry that some data would “catch [the] eye” of former PM Boris Johnson (pictured above) and some would not, meaning advisers had to develop a way to present data that would help the prime minister understand it better.

In some cases, as demonstrated by Vallance’s notes from the time, Johnson would question whether the data presented to him was in any way affected by government intervention or whether it was all “just a mirage”. The PM was “bamboozled” graphs and data, he wrote.

In June 2020, during the first national lockdown, the adviser’s notes added: “Watching the PM get his head round stats is awful. He finds relative and absolute risk almost impossible to understand.”

According to Vallance, there was an “unfamiliarity with science in government” that meant a great deal of time was used to explain concepts and data to the prime minister and ministers. 

“People who haven’t had training in science think of it as immutable facts,” Vallance explained, adding that it was difficult to get across the concept that science was more of a process of increasing one’s knowledge base and was “constantly changing with new evidence”.

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“That is not intuitive to many people and therefore there was a bit of dependence on it, an idea that this was a scientific problem and people would listen slavishly to this and want to hide behind this at times,” he continued. “I can also totally agree that there is no such thing as ‘the science’. Science by its very definition is a moving body of knowledge.”

Vallance did mention that it was clear from meetings with advisers from other countries that it was “true in every country” that leaders did not always have a full grasp of scientific concepts and how to interpret graphs. However, while this was not unique to Johnson, Vallance said it was “hard work sometimes” to get Johnson to understand scientific explanations.

The notes also described a point at which Johnson looked “broken” and had his “head in his hands”. Vallance’s notes also quoted Johnson as saying “we are too shit to get our act together” and described how on this day they had gone “round in circles” discussing whether to implement a full lockdown, with the prime minister “clutching at straws”.

Asked whether Johnson was a particularly difficult leader to deal with on days like this, Vallance replied: “It was difficult at times,” and said that when Johnson was acting like this, he would have waited for a “better opportunity” to present scientific advice.

Asked about whether it was helpful for him and then-chief medical officer professor Sir Chris Whitty to participate in the regular Covid press conferences, he told the Inquiry that he now thinks it was “overall, beneficial”, but said there was often a “blurred line” where they were asked about government policy decisions which they had not been responsible for as independent advisers.

A version of this story originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome

Zoe Crowther and PublicTechnology staff

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