Boris Johnson Mocked For Failing To Grasp Basic Maths During Pandemic

Leaked WhatsApp messages lead people to question the teaching at Eton.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right) was among the people who had to explain the numbers to then-prime minister Boris Johnson.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right) was among the people who had to explain the numbers to then-prime minister Boris Johnson.
Hollie Adams via Getty Images

Expensively-educated former prime minister Boris Johnson has faced ridicule for misinterpreting some basic numbers during the pandemic as he showed his frustration with the ailing economy.

Twitter users questioned whether the teaching of maths at Eton is “poor” after Johnson, who is anxious for a return to Downing Street, wrestled with the difference between a percentage and a probability figure.

It is one of the revelations in a cache of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages linked to Matt Hancock’s time as health secretary, which were handed to the Daily Telegraph.

In a group chat with key officials in August 2020, the newspaper reported Johnson saying he “just read somewhere” that fewer people who got Covid were dying, and asked how they could “justify the continuing paralysis” of the economy.

But it was based on a misreading of a Financial Times article.

It took Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, and several messages to explain to the prime minister that he’d failed to grasp the numbers correctly.

They revealed to him that a figure of 0.04 in the article was not, in fact, a percentage, but a probability figure. Here’s the key section of the conversation.

Vallance: “It seems that the FT figure is 0.04 (ie 4% not 0.04%) and is the case fatality rate and not the infection fatality rate (which would be 0.4-1% overall).”

Cummings: “Yup. Bad explaining from the ft”

Johnson: “Eh? So what is 0.04 if it is not a percentage? (Five marks; show working)”

Cummings: “0.04 as a probability means 4%. 0 = 0%. 1 = 100%. 0.04 = 4%.”

ITV’s political editor Robert Peston tweeted: “If this wasn’t a real conversation between a PM and his scientific and political advisers about a lethal pandemic, it would be funny. Sadly it is real and thoroughly depressing. Is the teaching of maths at Eton so poor?”

Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy added that the message might be “why Rishi Sunak thinks everyone should study maths until 18. Maybe it suggests politicians should be sent to maths lessons before being allowed to make decisions.”

Meanwhile, Hancock was considering legal action while strenuously denying claims he rejected advice to give coronavirus tests to all residents going into English care homes while health secretary.

Allies alleged the messages leaked by journalist Isabel Oakeshott after she was handed them by Hancock while working on his Pandemic Diaries memoir have been “spun to fit an anti-lockdown agenda”.

Other suggestions in the Telegraph’s files are that in September 2020, during a severe backlog in testing, an adviser to Hancock helped get a test sent to senior Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg’s home.

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