The UK should have gone into lockdown at least a week before it happened, Patrick Vallance has told the UK’s Covid inquiry, saying also he was reprimanded by two senior civil servants after he called for action to be taken in mid-March 2020.
Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser until earlier this year, said that while Boris Johnson first announced a lockdown on 23 March, by the weekend of 14-15 March it was clear to him that action was needed.
Data arriving that weekend showed “there were many more cases, it was far more widespread and was accelerating faster than anyone had expected”, Vallance told the inquiry. He added: “This was an occasion when I think it’s clear that we should have gone earlier.”
Questioned by Andrew O’Connor KC, Vallance said he had been reprimanded for calling in meetings around mid-March for action to be taken immediately, agreeing that at least one official had been “incandescent” with anger.
This had, he said, been Chris Wormald, who was and remains the top civil servant at the health department, as well as Mark Sedwill, then-cabinet secretary, the UK’s most senior civil servant.
Vallance said this sentiment had been forwarded to him, and he asked Wormald why he was angry: “He said it was the manner of raising it in the meeting rather than the substance, that he was concerned that I’d sort of thrown it into a ministerial meeting, whereas it should have gone through due process. But I stand by the fact that I think it was the right thing to say at the time.”
The weekend of 14-15 March was “probably the earliest which that decision [to lock down] could have been made”, Vallance said, adding that it could have come a few days earlier if the data showing the rapid progression of the virus had come sooner.
But there was, he added, no reason to delay the decision to impose restrictions once it became obvious how fast Covid was spreading. He said: “I think [at] that weekend there was in principle a decision that all of these measures would be needed. And I think it would have been sensible to have got on and done those as quickly as possible.”
When, after Boris Johnson called initially for voluntary efforts to limit transmission, Vallance said he had also suggested locking down London before the rest of the country because it was “so far ahead” in terms of the virus.
Vallance said: “The following day, when the prime minister announced that there will be voluntary measures to keep people from making contacts, I also suggested on that day that London was so far ahead that it would be necessary to possibly lock down London.”