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Boris Johnson spent two full days under cross-examination at the Covid Inquiry this week. Although much of the evidence presented about the government’s chaotic handling of the pandemic served to reinforce what had been revealed in previous testimony, there were some new insights to be had direct from the horse’s mouth.
For example, Johnson claimed that “Eat out To Help out was not presented to me as something which would add to the budget of risk.” Of course, as we heard earlier in the inquiry, this was probably because scientists were not consulted about Eat Out to Help Out before it launched. Johnson claimed in his testimony that he had assumed they [scientists] had been consulted and was subsequently surprised to learn this was not the case.
In a separate exchange, Johnson was shown a document, presented previously at the inquiry, describing the serious ongoing symptoms associated with long Covid and outlining the need for greater awareness of the condition. Atop the document he had scribbled “Bollocks” and “This is Gulf War Syndrome stuff” – comments which KC Hugo Keith suggested meant that Johnson questioned whether the disease even existed. In response Johnson apologised saying “I regret very much using that language…” although his follow up comments “…and I should have thought of the possibility of a future publication,” make it sound more like he was more sorry that his callous remarks had come to light than for making them in the first place.
This perfunctory dismissal of a scientific report presented to him seems typical of Johnson’s approach to much of the evidence that was so crucial during the pandemic. We were aware, even at the time, that, as his former adviser Lee Cain put it “this was the wrong crisis for Boris Johnson’s skill set”. However, was what less clear initially was exactly how little of the science Johnson was actually taking in.
Conversations revealed in Matt Hancock’s leaked WhatsApp messages earlier this year made it clear exactly how poor was Johnson’s grasp of some of the crucial scientific concepts required to understand the pandemic. Johnson himself admitted in his testimony that the rise of the Omicron variant in December 2021 was one of the “possibly rare” occasions when he felt he had “got a pretty good handle on the data”. “Maybe I was flattering myself,” he quips. For me, his unguarded, even light-hearted, admission that he did not have a good understanding of the data for most of 2020 and 2021 is one of the most shocking moments of the inquiry so far.
Why did Johnson Fail to Grasp the Science?
Last month the Inquiry was shown the contemporaneous notes of the former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, which suggested that Johnson was bamboozled by scientific data. In his testimony Vallance suggested that Johnson having given up science at 15 meant that he struggled with some of the concepts. Some have suggested that his scientific misunderstandings are perhaps, in part, the result of his having taken a humanities degree.
But this seems like too reductionist a theory. Having undertaken a humanities degree does not preclude one from engaging with scientific evidence. Others have argued, it was Johnson’s “laissez-faire ideology” rather than his want of scientific training that explains his lack of engagement and his desire to overrule or ignore the scientific evidence he was presented with. Whatever else Johnson may or may not be, he is not stupid. Concepts like exponential growth and infection fatality ratios should not have been beyond him.
In some ways it could have been an advantage to have someone scientifically naive who robustly questioned the scientific evidence as Johnson claimed he was doing when he is reported to have said “There will be more casualties, but so be it. They’ve had a good innings” and “We should let it rip a bit”. However, the evidence seems to bear out that he was not fulfilling this inquisitive role, but instead consistently failed to properly engage with the scientific data in a meaningful way.
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As a case in point, in his testimony on Wednesday he admitted “If we had actually stopped to think about the mathematical implications of the forecasts, and we’d believed them, we might have operated differently.” What is so difficult to understand about this statement is why he didn’t believe the forecasts he was presented with. What basis did he have for disbelieving them? What was the alternative data from which he was reasoning – if he wasn’t using the official data – that led him to a different conclusion to the official reports?
Johnson’s failures during the pandemic (and there are many) are not just about his scientific illiteracy, but about his outright unquestioning dismissal and failure to engage with the evidence that was being placed before him. It’s extraordinarily unfortunate that, at a time when we most needed a leader who would make the effort to understand the scientific evidence in this overwhelmingly science-dominated crisis, we were lumbered with Johnson.