The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance says his job is “not to sugarcoat” reality when speaking to the PM about Covid.
He said he had to give Boris Johnson and MPs the evidence – not worrying whether they would like it.
In a BBC Radio 4 interview, he also said “you’ve got to go sooner than you want” when it comes to taking action.
He was speaking before a report said the UK’s early Covid response was one of the worst public health failures.
The MPs’ report said the government’s approach was to try to manage the situation and in effect achieve herd immunity by infection – but this led to a delay in introducing the first lockdown, costing thousands of lives.
Sir Patrick told The Life Scientific: “My mantra for a long time during this (pandemic) has been… you’ve got to go sooner than you want to in terms of taking interventions.
“You’ve got to go harder than you want to, and you’ve got to go more geographically broad than you want to.
“And that is the Sage advice. And that’s what I’ve been saying. And I will say it going forward, and the prime minister knows that’s what I think. And he knows that’s what I would do in that situation.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, he had told the BBC in March 2020 that the aim was to “reduce the peak” of infections and that the population would build up a “degree of herd immunity”.
But in the new interview, he stressed that as more evidence came in, the scientific judgements changed.
“For a politician, that feels like a U-turn, or for the media that often feels like a U-turn,” he said. “It’s not a U-turn – this is new evidence that gives you a new position: this is the way we progress, the way we learn.”
Sir Patrick told interviewer Prof Jim Al-Khalili his job was “to give the scientific evidence as best you can, unvarnished – not worrying about whether the person hearing it is going to like it or dislike it”.
He said: “I view my job as giving scientific advice, like it or not, to the prime minister and cabinet to enable them to make decisions.
“My job is not to sugarcoat it. My job is not to tell them things they want to hear… it’s to make sure that they understand what the science at that moment is saying, what the uncertainties are, and to try to make that as clear as possible.”
He said he and fellow scientists were labelled as “gloom-mongers” by some parts of the media, and added: “Maybe we were, but we were trying to just tell people as we saw it, and as the experts were helping us understand it, what the situation was, and therefore what the options might be.”
Sir Patrick, who often spoke alongside the prime minister at Downing Street press conferences at the height of the pandemic, described it as “an incredibly fraught period”.
He said there was “massive uncertainty, lots of unknowns, and huge decisions that ministers and the prime minister had to make, and a lot of it very informed by science”.
“Did I spend my entire days feeling calm? No, I didn’t. And, you know, there were times when, of course, it was incredibly busy as well,” he said.
Sir Patrick also said there were times he doubted his abilities, saying: “All of us felt times when there was enormous pressure, and you just felt, am I doing a good job? Am I the right person in the job at the moment? Am I able to get the evidence through clearly enough or not?”
He said it was “not enough as a science adviser to say, I went in there and told them”, but rather he wanted to make sure “this has been properly understood”.
But he said the most difficult part of the job had been press intrusion into his personal life.
“Those are the times when you thought actually you know, is this really something I can do?” he said.
“When you’ve got my family being affected by press, being intrusive into things that weren’t actually germane to the job I was doing, that was probably the most difficult time actually.”
As for the current coronavirus situation, Sir Patrick said he had personally reduced his contacts and wore a mask in crowded places.
There will be a “balancing act” over the next few months, and winter “will be a big pressure for sure”, said Sir Patrick, adding: “We’re not out of the woods yet.”