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Chris Whitty Says Government Was "Too Late" To Act In First Wave Of Covid-19 Pandemic

Professor Chris Whitty was advising the government throughout the Covid-19 pandemic (UK Covid Inquiry)

4 min read

The UK government was "a bit too late" to intervene in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, according to top medical adviser to the government Professor Chris Whitty.

Whitty is giving evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry on Tuesday, which is looking into the government's preparedness and response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He has been the Chief Medical Officer for England since 2019, and is following many other evidence sessions with senior politicians and advisers, including former prime minister David Cameron, ex-chancellor George Osborne and Johnson's former adviser Dominic Cummings.

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry on Monday, and spoke about how former prime minister Boris Johnson was "bamboozled" by much of the scientific advice at the time.

Asked about the speed at which government implemented lockdown measures in March 2020, Whitty said that the response had been a "bit too late".

“With the benefit of hindsight we went a bit too late on the first wave, and I’ve been very clear about that for some time," he said.

Whitty described a "difficult period” in early March when the exact point at which government should intervene was a "matter of technical debate", but said that from 16 March 2020 onwards, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was advising that without action “we were going to be in very deep trouble”.

At the time, the government and its advisers were having to weigh up the “risk of going too early and the risk of going too late”, and Whitty added that ministers had to be aware of “both sides of the equation”.

He described the options available to the government during the pandemic as "very bad, some a bit worse, some very, very bad".

Whitty admitted that he was therefore among those who took a more "cautious" approach early on, explaining that he had "strong concerns" about how the most deprived groups and areas could be those who were the worst affected by lockdown measures – a matter which he said was within his remit as a "public health concern".

“I did have a strong concern that some of the biggest impacts of everything we did… would be in areas of deprivation and those in difficulties and those living alone and so on," he said.

“I thought people should be aware that without action very serious things could occur, but the downsides of those actions should be made transparent.”

Whitty told the Inquiry that the erosion of public health facilities over a "really long period of time" had contributed to the government being poorly prepared for such a huge public health challenge. 

Having looked at the pandemic plan that was in place in early 2020, Whitty said that "it was pretty clear it wasn't going to be any particular help" and that the government did not have a plan that was helpful from a "prevention" point of view. 

In an earlier evidence session, former prime minister David Cameron stated that the government had failed to prepare for a range of pandemics that were not just influenza. However, Whitty told the Inquiry that he believed the plan would have been "deficient" even if the pandemic had been flu rather than Covid-19.

"Had we had a flu pandemic that had a mortality of 1-2 per cent, [the plan] would also have been woefully deficient," he said.

"It wasn't designed to meet this particular need at all."

He added that the plan had "clearly" been written by those who had learned from a pandemic where mortality rates were very low, and referred to three major pandemics, including the 1918 Spanish flu, which he believed government plans should have been more modelled on.

The medical adviser also expressed his view that science was not integrated enough into government but that it should be recognised the UK had a "better" system than many similar Western democracies.

“The UK system of integration of science into government in my view is short of where it should be, but is better than a large number of our neighbours," he said, referring to the UK's system of having scientific advisers and different bodies feeding into decision-making.

Asked about the diversity of disciplines within SAGE, Whitty insisted that “SAGE should not be seen as the only vehicle" for scientific advice for government, with other scientific bodies feeding into advice to government, the NHS and the general public throughout the pandemic.

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