Chief scientist Patrick Vallance ‘was told off’ for backing lockdown

The government’s chief scientist was ‘told off’ for pushing too hard for lockdown as coronavirus cases soared, a private email revealed today. 

James Tapsfield

Sir Patrick Vallance said he ‘argued stronger than anyone’ for harsh restrictions early in the crisis, as he defended his own performance during internal wrangling.

In the message to fellow science officers, Sir Patrick complained that he had been rebuked by chief medical officer Chris Whitty and then-Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill over the tough stance.

The spat – disclosed in an email released to the BBC under freedom of information rules – sheds light on the tensions at the heart of government as it struggled to cope with the challenge from the deadly disease.

Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty in particular have always tried to present a united front, as they are jointly responsible for interpreting the complex evidence on coronavirus for Cabinet and often flank the PM at press conferences. 

It comes as experts condemned the government’s response handling of coronavirus as ‘one cautious, catastrophic error after another’. Professors Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson, from Oxford University warned that the draconian ‘Rule of Six’ restrictions imposed today had ‘no scientific basis’ and could ‘tip the public over the edge’.  

The internal row emerged as Sir Patrick and colleagues were discussing how to respond to allegations from the Sunday Times that there had been too much delay in announcing a lockdown – which finally happened on March 23.

The message from Sir Patrick, dated May 23, said it was ‘very clear what we warned of and what needed to be prepared for’.

He added: ‘It is also the case that I argued stronger than anyone for action for lockdown (with a telling off from CMO, PS DHSC and CabSec).’

CMO is an abbreviation for ‘chief medical officer’, Prof Whitty, while PS DHSC refers to the permanent secretary at the Department of Health, Chris Wormald and ‘CabSec’ at the time was Sir Mark. 

Sir Patrick came under heavy fire early in the crisis for citing the idea of ‘herd immunity’, that the disease would need to be contracted by a large proportion of the population.

However, he has denied that was the government’s active policy, and insisted in the email that ‘herd immunity is what is achieved by vaccines and that is what stops epidemics’. 

A government spokeswoman said: ‘As recorded in the SAGE minutes there was no disagreement on the substance of the scientific advice to Ministers.

‘This is a new virus and at every stage, we have been guided by the advice of world renowned scientists.

‘There was no delay to lockdown. SAGE advised on March 16th that further measures should be introduced as soon as possible.

‘Our response ensured the NHS was not overwhelmed even at the virus’ peak, so that everyone was always able to get the best possible care.’

Sir Patrick is regarded as one of the most sceptical major players in government over the chances of overcoming the disease quickly.

At a press conference with Mr Johnson and Prof Whitty last week, he voiced doubts about the prospects that a ‘moon shot’ mass testing system could remove the need for lockdown and social distancing soon.

He cautioned that there was a lot of uncertainty around the development of accurate saliva tests. 

Asked whether the ‘moonshot’ technology worked, Sir Patrick said: ‘Some of them we don’t yet know that they work. 

‘So things like lateral flow tests are not yet being used widely, they’ve not been validated.

‘There are prototypes which look as though they have some effect, but they’ve got to be tested properly and so there are, as always with technologies, unknowns and we would be completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen. I think this needs to be tested carefully.’