Boris Johnson referred to Treasury as ‘pro-death squad’, inquiry hears

Boris Johnson. Issue date: Friday September 8, 2023.
Boris Johnson. Issue date: Friday September 8, 2023. Boris Johnson. Issue date: Friday September 8, 2023.

Boris Johnson referred to the Treasury as the “pro-death squad” during the pandemic, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

The former prime minister reportedly used the phrase at a meeting in January 2021 when he wanted the ministry to back him in arguing for a path to eased restrictions.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday, Mr Johnson’s pandemic-era deputy principal private secretary, Stuart Glassborow, said he did not recall hearing the term.

Reading from former chief scientific adviser to the Government Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary, where the phrase was noted, Mr Keating went on: “There is an entry… at meeting on 25 January 2021 the PM is recorded saying he wants Tier 3 March 1, Tier 2 April 1, Tier 1 May 1 and nothing by September.

“And he ends it by saying the team must bring in the pro-death squad from HMT”.

“I think (this) refers to a meeting from a couple of years ago. I don’t recall that specific phrase,” Mr Glassborow said.

“I see that this is from Patrick’s notebook. I wouldn’t dispute what he’s recorded, but I don’t recall the phrase at all.”

Earlier, the inquiry heard from the Government’s former chief economic adviser, who said the Treasury had “no estimated cost” of a lockdown going into the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t say there was no meaningful modelling, there was a lot of analysis and modelling that happened. What I would say is there was no estimated cost of a lockdown, if you like,” Claire Lombardelli said.

“There was no way to basically say a lockdown will cost you X, or indeed a lockdown of this form will cost you X but of a different form will cost you Y.”

Ms Lombardelli denied the Treasury had been “tactical” or selective in the way it shared its analysis during the pandemic, saying its focus was on providing information to ministers in a “pressurised time”.

But she acknowledged that data could “potentially” have been shared more widely to improve the quality of modelling.

In an email chain shown to the inquiry, Dame Angela McLean, who was the deputy chief scientific adviser at the time, expressed concerns over the Treasury’s use of simple modelling.

The email read: “I have emailed Chris (Whitty) and Patrick (Vallance) saying HMT (Her Majesty’s Treasury) changed the model after I QA’d (quality assured) it and I don’t know how.

Ben Wallace visits visits Salisbury Plain
Ben Wallace visits visits Salisbury Plain Dame Angela McLean expressed concerns over the Treasury’s use of simple modelling (Ben Birchall/PA)

“Anything HMT says about infectious disease modelling therefore has no endorsement from me – they are on their own.

“Given their inability to spot egregious errors in other things they were sent I do not have confidence in their ability to hack a simple, sensible model.”

Ms Lombardelli, who advised Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor, was also asked about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, through which discounts were offered to encourage people to get back out to restaurants in summer 2020.

The former Government adviser, now chief economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said she did not know whether any scientist had been consulted about the policy before it was implemented.

“I was involved in the sort of economic evidence that fed into this identification of the challenge… I don’t know the details of the clearance process,” she said.

Asked whether the risk of potentially increasing infections was considered in the rollout, Ms Lombardelli replied: “I don’t know. The policy was conceived in the context that it was safe to lift restrictions and activity could return.”

However, Mr Glassborow  said staff inside No 10 were aware there was no scientific advice on the scheme’s effect on the virus before it was implemented.

Giving evidence after Ms Lombardelli, Mr Glassborow, a career civil servant, said he and others in Downing Steet knew “there hadn’t been direct CMO, CSA, Sage analysis on this policy.”

The inquiry will later hear from Ben Warner, a former No 10 special adviser.