Rishi Sunak was described as ‘Dr Death’ by his now-most senior scientist during the pandemic, it emerged today at the Covid Inquiry.
Dame Angela McLean, who this year succeeded Sir Patrick Vallance as No10’s chief scientific adviser, sent the WhatsApp message to a fellow Government adviser in a crunch meeting with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then-Chancellor Mr Sunak.
At the time of the September 2020 meeting, the rule of six was in place following Mr Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme and Mr Johnson had confirmed that the UK was ‘now seeing a second wave coming in’.
Government advisers were urging Mr Johnson to impose a circuit-breaker lockdown but Mr Sunak was concerned about the impact on the economy.
During the same meeting, Dame Angela, who was then chief scientist at the Ministry of Defence, also called one of the scientists arguing against a shutdown a ‘f***wit’.
Dame Angela Ruth McLean, who was chief scientist at the Ministry of Defence at the time, sent the WhatsApp message to a fellow Government scientist during a crunch meeting with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then-Chancellor Mr Sunak
The inquiry was shown WhatsApp exchanges between Professor Edmunds and Dame Angela during the meeting, in which she referred to ‘Dr Death the Chancellor’ and said ‘in ONS you’d see it’
Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the inquiry today that he attended the meeting on Sunday September 20, along with officials including Mr Johnson, Mr Sunak and Sir Patrick.
Email exchanges between Sir Patrick and Professor Edmunds state that the meeting was so Mr Johnson could hear a ‘range of views on the forward look’ from the ‘let it rip brigade’.
Professor Edmunds told the inquiry that this referred to ‘vocal people who took the view that we shouldn’t have locked down in the first place and that we shouldn’t be considering that again’.
This included Oxford University professors Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan, and Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s leading epidemiologist, whose advice shaped the nation’s controversial decision to avoid a blanket lockdown.
In an email to Professor Edmunds, shown to the inquiry today, Sir Patrick said ‘we have tried to put together a balanced group across views and so I think what he needs is your view on future direction of the epidemic’.
The inquiry was shown WhatsApp exchanges between Professor Edmunds and Dame Angela during the meeting, in which she referred to ‘Dr Death the Chancellor’.
Lead Counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Professor Edmunds: ‘Did you understand those were references to the eat out to help out campaign of which you’d spoken about?’
Professor Edmunds said: ‘Honestly, it’s so long ago I don’t know but it could well be.’
The brief WhatsApp exchange was introduced after Professor Edmunds criticised the Eat Out scheme, which was introduced in August 2020. It provided a 50 per cent discount on food and non-alcoholic drinks to customers who ate inside at participating restaurants.
Professor Edmunds, who sat on nearly 100 SAGE meetings during the pandemic, told the inquiry: ‘To be honest, it (the scheme) made me angry and I’m still angry about it.
‘It was one thing taking your foot off the brake which is what we’ve been doing by easing the restrictions, but to put the foot on the accelerator, it seemed to me perverse.
‘To spend public money to do that, when 45,000 people had just died… the optics of it were terrible. This was a scheme to encourage people to take an epidemiological risk.’
The barrister said that, after the meeting, Professor Heneghan and Professor Gupta argued that they had ‘not had a fair hearing’.
Professor Edmunds told the inquiry: ‘I had interrupted Professor Heneghan at one point because he was making some really basic epidemiological errors — the sort of ones we teach our students on day one.
‘And I couldn’t let it go after a while, so I did interrupt, and that slightly put the wind out of his sails, and so yes, and he hadn’t interrupted me so it’s fair enough that they complained.’
Mr Keith said: ‘I think you described his arguments as half baked. But in any event, your argument, your views did not — to use your own words — “find favour with the Prime Minister”.’
While giving evidence to the inquiry this afternoon, Professor Heneghan (pictured) was asked about email exchanges which said his approach was ‘half-baked nonsense’, being called a ‘f***wit’ by Dame Angela and being accused of not understanding ‘basic epidemiology’
The brief WhatsApp exchange was introduced after Professor Edmund criticised the Eat Out scheme, which was introduced in August 2020 providing a 50 per cent discount on food and non-alcoholic drinks to customers who ate inside at participating restaurants
Mr Johnson subsequently brought in fresh restrictions, including a return to working from home and a 10pm curfew for the hospitality sector.
It was not until October 14 that he brought in a second national lockdown, which lasted until November 5.
While giving evidence to the inquiry this afternoon, Professor Heneghan was asked about email exchanges which said his approach was ‘half-baked nonsense’, being called a ‘f***wit’ by Dame Angela and being accused of not understanding ‘basic epidemiology’.
He said: ‘I would never in a professional capacity use such language about other individuals.
‘It is not unusual to find yourself in disagreement, in a position of disagreement.
‘We call it uncertainty and the job of an evidence based approach is to try and reduce uncertainties, so that you can make an informed decision.
‘The very fact that you have opposing views shows you that there’s a problem with the interpretation.’
He said he was asked to provide views challenging those held by those sitting on the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE).
Mr Johnson’s notes following the meeting show he was ‘certainly willing to be persuaded by the lockdown sceptics, but found in reality they were reluctant to argue any such case’.