Yesterday Boris Johnson committed himself to a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus. He didn’t say when, though he gave the distinct impression that the ideal time would be a long way into the future. By when he would have had time to line up any number of patsies to take the rap for his own failures. One of whom is sure to be the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.
It’s fair to say that Vallance has been a little slow off the mark right from the very start of the pandemic. Not so much with the science – though he’s hardly excelled at that – but with PR management. For a long time, he was under the impressions that his prime role was to provide the government with independent scientific advice; it’s only over the course of the last few weeks he’s realised his real function was to be a human shield for Boris. And he’s clearly not happy about having been suckered in this way.
So for Vallance, a two-hour appearance before the science and technology select committee was an ideal opportunity to lay the foundations of his fightback. A chance to redirect the blame to where it really lay. And in Greg Clark, the committee chair and former cabinet minister, he had someone who was only too happy to indulge him. Boris is only just beginning to realise that, for all his acolytes who fawn over every Latin word, he has some powerful enemies on the Tory backbenches.
Satisfied that he was a full two metres away from the nearest committee member – there were only three of them in the room, the rest were virtual – Vallance ostentatiously removed his face mask and began to let rip. Was it still true that there had never been any significant occasions when the government had ignored the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advice, Clark asked?
The chief scientific adviser smiled benignly. His only job was to provide the government with the scientific evidence. What idiotic decisions happened to be taken as a result of that advice was completely up to the government. To suggest there was any correlation between the advice Sage might have given and government policy was absurd. Any overlap could only ever be a coincidence.
Clark then gently tiptoed into trickier areas. The UK hadn’t had particularly good coronavirus outcomes – a euphemism for the highest mortality rate in the world – and it was hard to find any country that particularly admired the standard of our science. How did he account for that?
“The outcomes have not been good,” Vallance agreed. But that was entirely because the UK’s data flow had been poor and because our test and trace systems were hopelessly inadequate. He and other members of Sage had been complaining to Public Health England and the Department for Health and Social Care about this for months, but neither body had taken a blind piece of notice. Just as he had flagged up concerns about the risk of transmission in care homes and been totally ignored.
Not that Vallance wanted to lay all the blame at the government’s door. He was far too polite for that. Or possibly passive aggressive. When you’ve been taken for a fool for so long, it’s hard not to take some pleasure from exacting revenge. Face masks? He’d been all in favour of them long before the World Health Organization had jumped on the bandwagon. It was just that Boris hadn’t been that interested in what he had had to say. But then the prime minister did have a lot of other things on his mind at the time.
The killer line came when Vallance insisted Sage had recommended an immediate total lockdown on 16 March. A bit late in the day possibly, given the rate of infection in the UK was increasing exponentially and that dozens of other countries had already introduced lockdowns, but still a good week before Boris could be bothered to getting round to doing anything about it. But then jockey club director, Dido Harding – soon to be chief executive of the track and trace system – had wanted the Cheltenham festival to go ahead and it would have been a shame for Carrie Symonds to have had to cancel her baby shower at Chequers. So all in all, it was probably worth the 20,000 extra deaths the week’s delay entailed.
By now Vallance, normally one of the dourest, most-defensive of men, looked as if he was beginning to enjoy himself. The session was developing into gestalt therapy and he was on the brink of catharsis. All that pent-up hurt and resentment finally being allowed an outlet. Yes, things still were basically a bit shit. He couldn’t understand why the government’s testing programme was still so rubbish as on current evidence Matt Hancock didn’t have a prayer of reaching his winter targets. And yes, he knew that Boris was due to give a speech the following day encouraging people to go back to work, but his advice was for everyone to stay put at home.
Back in No 10, Dominic Cummings was having a hissy fit as he wondered how to rephrase the government advice, but Vallance was on a schadenfreude high. All he had ever done was present the evidence as he saw it – even if he had been a bit slow on the uptake at times – and if the government had acted irresponsibly then it was nothing to do with him, guv. Over to you Boris and Matt.
Hancock had been down to appear before the committee immediately after Vallance, but Matt had wisely excused himself by giving a statement to the Commons on extending the Leicester lockdown instead. Anything to buy himself a bit of time. Because after Vallance’s evidence, Mattbeth is going to need to come up with some creative answers next Tuesday. The blame game is only just beginning. And it could be the only fun thing to come out of the whole coronavirus pandemic.