Chris Whitty says it was ‘entirely practical’ for Government to ditch coronavirus contact tracing in March
Chris Whitty defended the decision to halt the contact tracing programme in March (PA)
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has defended the Government’s “entirely practical” decision to ditch its initial coronavirus contract tracing programme in March because of stretched resources.
The top medic also insisted that had been no “huge delay” in the response to the pandemic in England.
But he admitted that “many of the problems we had came out of lack of testing capacity”.
Prof Whitty made the comments while appearing at the health select committee, where he was grilled by chair Jeremy Hunt on what advice the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had given the Government on mass testing, which was abandoned in the early phases of pandemic in favour of a focus on hospitals.
The top medic told MPs: “Sage was consistent, and I was consistent, in saying we needed considerably more testing capacity.
“Many of the problems we had came out of our lack of testing capacity, but testing alone is not sufficient to have a full test, trace and isolate system.
"This requires an infrastructure we did not have that was built up by places like South Korea.”
And, in an apparent dig at former Health Secretary Mr Hunt, he added that “if we wished to build this capacity, we could have done so in previous years”.
When pushed by the committee on why Sage chose to “accept the [testing] capacity as a given” in March when the UK was able to reach 100,000 tests a day in April, Prof Whitty responded: “To say you can suddenly switch this on I’m afraid is incorrect.
“The way you run emergencies badly is to try and run them based on a theory of what you could do rather than with the tools you have at your disposal.
“And that is the way we had to run it, and that's the way we did run it.”
Justifying the decision to halt the contact tracing programme in mid-March, he said: “The words that carry the most weight in this is ‘given the capacity we had’.
"Given that capacity, that was, in my view, the correct advice.”
“We were already in a situation where there was a big risk that we were missing cases in hospitals and were not able to treat people and we were leaving people in ICUs without being diagnosed and so on. There were multiple things that this capacity had to be used for.”
He continued: “There was no conceptual reason for saying we don’t want to do this, it was entirely practical.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe