Patrick Vallance’s pandemic diary reveals Government’s maddening disregard for science

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on Covid-19
The excerpts seen so far of Sir Patrick's pandemic diary paint a picture of discord and capriciousness within Government - Tolga Akmen/PA Wire

“Keep a diary and someday it will keep you”, Mae West the American actress, is said to have quipped.

For Sir Patrick Vallance that day has arrived, as it emerged that the Government’s former chief scientific adviser was quietly writing a journal during the pandemic, a copy of which has now been handed to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Early excerpts suggest it will make for deeply uncomfortable – if scintillating – reading, with the phrase “quite extraordinary” appearing frequently in relation to dubious government decisions.

One can only imagine the eye-roll that accompanied the sentence: “Some person has completely rewritten the science advice!”

“They’ve just cherry picked,” he grumbled. “Quite extraordinary.”

Sir Patrick was referring to the two-metre rule, which in the summer of 2020 was causing a headache for Number 10.

On the one hand, politicians – and arguably the public – wanted good, simple scientific advice that they could follow and would help to protect them from coronavirus.

But, the science on social distancing was vague and hugely dependent on circumstances.

Sage reports on the issue were complex, warning that it mattered whether you were outdoors or indoors, whether you were masked, whether you were facing someone and for how long.

At background briefings that summer, Sir Patrick made this clear, telling science journalists the two-metre rule was “not a rule from a scientific perspective” and advising that passing close to someone on the street for a second was an “absolutely negligible risk”.

“The risk can come down if, for example, instead of being face-to-face, you’re side-by-side or you’re back-to-back,” he said.

“It can be reduced by things like ventilation, it can be helped by being outdoors, it can be reduced if you’re wearing a face covering, or putting the screen up and so there’s all sorts of things you can do to reduce that.”

But those briefings were strictly off the record, and although journalists could hint at some of the discord happening behind the scenes, we were banned from being too explicit for fear of losing access.

Initially, the Government had accepted some of the nuance surrounding social distancing.

At the beginning of March 2020, the Department of Health released guidance warning that coronavirus could be spread when people have “close, sustained contact”, which they said meant “spending more than 15 minutes or longer within two metres of an infected person”.

But by late June, all ambiguity was gone and the two-metre rule was firmly and irrevocably in place.

Across the country, businesses stuck fussy markers on their shop floors to keep people apart. Even supermarkets insisted that customers queuing outdoors observed the sanction.

The rule itself had little to do with coronavirus, dating back to experiments by the Harvard scientist William Wells, who was looking at the contagiousness of tuberculosis in the 1930s.

Wells found that viruses causing respiratory infections are spread by different-sized droplets expelled by coughs and sneezes. Just one single droplet can be enough to carry an infectious dose and later research demonstrated the distances droplets can travel.

All well and good, but there was little evidence that it could be directly applied to coronavirus, a point that scientists were quite clear about. Even the World Health Organisation had advised that one metre was likely to be sufficient.

What is clear from Sir Patrick’s diary entries is that nobody was reading the science, let alone following it, as was consistently claimed by Downing Street.

For the rest of the country, it might be comforting to know that while we were shouting at the television, officials were feeling the same frustration with the Government.

But for Downing Street, this will no doubt feel like a betrayal, and one they did not see coming.

After all, you have to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back, and Sir Patrick always seemed so stoically on message.

Now we find he secretly despaired of “flip-flopping, inconsistent, bullish, bipolar Boris”.

Quite extraordinary.

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