Johnson spoke of ‘whisky and revolver’ at Covid meeting in October 2020

Former prime minister Boris Johnson grappled with whether to introduce a national lockdown in the autumn of 2020 (Victoria Jones/PA)
Former prime minister Boris Johnson grappled with whether to introduce a national lockdown in the autumn of 2020 (Victoria Jones/PA)

Boris Johnson referred to “whisky and a revolver” during a meeting with officials in October 2020, and spoke about “medieval measures” to tackle the pandemic, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

The remarks, detailed in the notebook of the then-chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance and shared with the inquiry, came as Mr Johnson’s government sought to avoid a second national lockdown heading into the winter.

Sir Patrick also complained that Mr Johnson and his then-chancellor Rishi Sunak were “clutching at straws”.

The disclosure came as Simon Ridley became the latest top official to appear before Lady Hallett’s inquiry this week.

The former head of the Cabinet Office Covid-19 taskforce faced detailed questions about the role and influence of the official body over the course of 2020.

Much of the hearing focused on the options presented to Mr Johnson and Cabinet ministers about how to suppress the virus heading into the winter, with Mr Johnson at one stage seeking out “alternative views” from Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford, and others.

In his notebook, detailing a meeting in early October, Sir Patrick wrote: “Very bad meeting in no.10… PM talks of medieval measures than ones being suggested.

“Perhaps we should look at another approach and apply different values… Surely this just sweeps through in waves like other natural phenomena and there is nothing we can do.

“As Simon Ridley said final slide, PM said ‘Whisky and a revolver’. He was all over the place. CX (Chancellor) using increasingly specific and spurious arguments against closing hospitality. Both of them clutching at straws…

“There are really only three choices for the high prevalence areas… 1) Do a proper lockdown 2) Use military to enforce the rules 3) Do nothing and do a ‘Barrington Declaration’ and count the bodies (poor, old and BAME). When will they decide.”

The so-called Great Barrington Declaration was a scientifically contested proposal which called for an easing of lockdown measures in a switch of strategy to more shielding and a herd immunity approach.

Mr Ridley told the hearing: “It’s definitely the case that the prime minister and the chancellor didn’t want to put in place circuit breakers at that point.

“I don’t recall the specific phrase that Patrick notes and the chancellor certainly was arguing against closing hospitality, and there was a debate about the extent to which sector closures would have the suppression impact that we were stating it would.”

In another extract from the notebooks, dated October 25, Sir Patrick suggested that Mr Johnson was often “buffeted” in his decision-making by Mr Sunak.

Sir Patrick wrote: “Ridley meeting – positioned PM meeting as ‘a chance to step back/but avoid making a whole load of decisions that then get undone by Cx’. I asked what PM thinks objectives are ‘what he wants to achieve is a series of mutually incompatible options’. He ‘owns’ the reality for a day and then is buffeted by a discussion with Cx.”

The hearing was also shown Mr Johnson’s handwritten annotations to Covid taskforce advice towards the end of October, in which he said: “What do we really achieve by smashing up the economy if we have no idea how many times we are going to have to do it?”

He also added: “What happened to mass testing? What about the moon shots?”, and “How can we get people to self-isolate? Is NHS Test and Trace actually achieving anything?”

The Covid taskforce continued to seek a debate about a national lockdown, raising the discussion at the Covid-O Cabinet sub-committee.

Earlier Mr Ridley acknowledged that officials working on the Cabinet Office Covid taskforce were “blindsided” by Mr Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

He admitted there was some surprise when the then-chancellor’s plan to encourage people to get back out to restaurants in summer 2020 was first presented.

The inquiry has already heard criticism of the policy from, among others, Sir Chris Whitty, who privately referred to it as “eat out to help out the virus”.

Mr Ridley was asked by lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC if he was “extraordinarily concerned” that such a major policy was not brought before the taskforce.

“Things happen that surprise. We were focused on the advice we could give in the context of the steps of the May 2020 document.

“This was announced as government policy. I didn’t spend time worrying particularly about the whys and wherefores of that,” he said.

Put to him by Mr Keith that this was because he was “blindsided by the Treasury and there was nothing you could do”, he said: “Correct.”

New details emerged during Tuesday’s hearing about the taskforce’s preparations for winter, amid concerns about a resurgence of the virus.

In September Mr Johnson was shown a document, headed “hypothetical thought-experiment not Government policy”, by Mr Ridley and other officials that set out a scenario several weeks in the future, October 14 2020, where he was being advised to take “urgent action” to “bend the curve” of Covid infection levels.

Mr Keith asked: “Why was it necessary to put that in front of the prime minister and, bluntly, scare him or hypothesise as to what terrible dilemmas he might have to face in the future if he didn’t take a decision in September, the way that the Covid taskforce believed he ought?”

Mr Ridley said: “We were trying to find different ways to have the debate with the prime minister and others about the uncertainties about the possible positions we could be in, in order to inform decisions about action today.

“We found at different points in July, August and September (2020) that doing meetings in some slightly different ways, providing information in different ways, helped to stimulate that debate.”

Lord Udny-Lister, a former chief of staff to Mr Johnson, will appear later.