Chris Whitty argues Covid was chaotic in all governments
Sir Chris Whitty took a more diplomatic approach to other witnesses at today’s Covid inquiry, emphasising the struggles all Governments faced at the outset of the pandemic.
Taking to the stand, the Chief Medical Officer conceded that Boris Johnson’s decision-making in 2020 had been “quite often chaotic”.
However the top medical boffin put up a more balanced defence than other inquiry witnesses, arguing: “I’d be very doubtful if it wasn’t chaotic in multiple other governments.
“In fact that’s what our fellow advisors from other countries said in many other environments – that this was difficult for every country, being faced by extraordinary circumstances.”
He praised the civil service, but described the political advisers and system around Mr Johnson as “more mixed”.
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Sir Chris shied away from some of the more headline-grabbing confessions of those at the heart of the Government’s decision-making during the pandemic, such as Sir Patrick Vallance and Dominic Cummings.
He said that “with the benefit of hindsight” the first lockdown in March 2020 was “a bit too late”, however denied the private judgement of Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance that he was a “delayer”.
According to Sir Patrick’s evidence yesterday, the pair disagreed about the speed at which lockdown should have come in, with the diary of SAGE member Sir Jeremy Farrar recording a “palpable tension between Patrick and Chris in the early weeks of 2020”.
A diary entry from Sir Patrick in February 2021 claimed Sir Chris had pondered whether lockdown had come in too late in March 2020: “(he was the delayer of course)”.
Asked about the tensions, Sir Chris said he did have a “stronger concern than some” that the “biggest impacts” of measures, such as lockdown, would be felt more by those living in deprivation or those who lived alone.
He argued there was a need to balance the risks of going too early versus too late.
He said: “The idea that you could go without cost earlier than was needed was wrong… I was probably further to ‘let’s think through the disadvantages before we act’.”
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Sir Chris’s evidence today attempted to counter claims by lockdown sceptics that the Government failed to consider the harsh economic and social impacts of its Covid mitigation policies.
He argued that, for example, asking someone living alone to shield only for them to end up with “loneliness, depression, and so on” was “firmly within the realms of public health” that it was his job to consider and advise on.
Counter to those who have sought to portray the chaos and disagreements within Government during the pandemic, Sir Chris downplayed the narrative that he and Sir Patrick has had a significant disagreement about lockdown.
He said: “I think we should be very careful of the narcissism of small differences”.
One area of criticism about Boris Johnson the CMO did single out was the continuous use of the mantra “following the science”, which he said became a millstone around the neck of advisers.
While he acknowledged the Government recognising the science was “important” he argued that “very soon we realised it was a millstone round our necks, and it didn’t help the Government either”.
Sir Patrick agreed with this when giving evidence yesterday, saying there is no such thing as “the science” and portrayed the idea that there was unanimous agreement among advisers rather than a range of opinions that were constantly evolving.
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