Boris Johnson’s insistence that the Government was “following the science” during the pandemic became a millstone around the necks of his advisers, the Chief Medical Officer has said.
Prof Sir Chris Whitty told the Covid Inquiry he was initially glad that the then prime minister was committed to taking expert advice on board, but later came to see it as a burden.
During an entire day in the witness box, Sir Chris also said more people died from other illnesses than Covid-19 throughout the pandemic and denied claims of tensions between him and Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser.
Sir Chris and Sir Patrick were Mr Johnson’s two most senior scientific advisers during the global crisis, and became household names as they flanked the prime minister at daily press conferences.
Sir Chris, who will continue giving evidence for a second day on Wednesday, said that when ministers first told the public they were following the science, both he and Sir Patrick “thought, ‘well, this was a good thing, the Government is recognising that science is important.’
“Very soon we realised it was a millstone round our necks and it didn’t help the Government either.”
On Monday, Sir Patrick had said that the phrase was unhelpful as there was no such thing as “the science” and it suggested that there was a single agreed position from scientists, rather than a range of opinions that were constantly evolving as more information became available.
More people died from other illnesses
Sir Chris said it would have been “wrong” for the whole medical profession to focus on Covid-19 in early 2020 and that even at its height more people died of other causes.
Asked about discussions before the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic, he said that by February that year the “great majority” of his work was around the new virus and “we were moving increasingly far away from a probability this could go back to nothing.”
However, he added that that point was still “a long way” from the WHO declaring a pandemic on March 11 2020 or having evidence of transmission within the UK.
Sir Chris argued that it is “important to recognise that it would have been wrong to swing the whole of the medical profession over to this” in February 2020.
“Even at the height of the pandemic, more people died of causes not Covid than died of Covid,” he said. “Every one of those deaths is tragic on both of those sides.”
Sage discussed downsides of lockdown
Sir Chris said Sage had discussed the downsides of lockdown, and that he had personally warned that restricting liberties would hit the poorest and most isolated in society hardest.
He said: “I did have a stronger concern, I would say than some, that the biggest impacts of everything we did – and I was confident we were going to have to do them to be clear – but when we started, the disadvantages of all the actions, not just for lockdown, but other actions before that, for example, what was initially called cocooning and then shielding as an example, and stopping schooling as another.
“The biggest impacts of those would be areas of deprivation and those in difficulties and those living alone and so on.”
Asked if he warned of the danger that if the country “went too soon, too rapidly, there would be other perhaps indirect but other significant consequences”, he said he did not deviate from the advice of Sage.
Cheltenham had no ‘material effect’
One of the biggest controversies at the start of the pandemic was the Government’s decision to allow major sporting events, including the four-day Cheltenham Festival, to go ahead.
Cheltenham began on March 10, 2020 and on March 11 Liverpool hosted a Champions League match against Atletico Madrid. The first lockdown was announced on March 23.
Sir Chris said the decision not to cancel mass gatherings was “technically correct”.
He said he was “taking ownership” of the advice given at the time by the Sage group of expert advisers, who told the Government that the risks of outdoor events was relatively low.
He said: “The problem was not the gatherings themselves, which I don’t think there is good evidence that they had a material effect directly, but the impression it gives of normality at a time when you are trying to signal anything but normality.”
He said it risked sending a message that “the Government couldn’t be that worried” about the threat of Covid-19 if it was allowing big sporting events to go ahead, so the decision was “in a sense technically correct and logically incoherent to the general public”.
No war with Sir Patrick
Sir Chris was asked about a description by his Sage colleague Sir Jeremy Farrar of “palpable tension” between him and Sir Patrick over lockdown policy.
He said: “Well Sir Jeremy, who is a good friend and colleague, had a book to sell and that made it more exciting, I’m told.”
Sir Patrick said Sir Chris had been more cautious about imposing restrictions on the public than he was, but Sir Chris said: “My own view is that actually the differences were very small. And the main one … was that I saw as part of my role within Sage … to reflect some of the very significant problems for, particularly areas of deprivation.”
Sir Chris dismissed Sir Patrick’s description of him in his private diary as “a delayer”, saying he had only reflected the overall opinion of Sage at the time in trying to balance the risk of going too early with restrictions and going too late.
We relied on foreign experts
Sir Chris was asked if England had consulted overseas experts about the response and experience of the pandemic, but said that the country was “absolutely dependent” on information from abroad at the start of the pandemic.
He explained that he spoke with officials from the WHO, including the director general, and his counterparts in other countries as the pandemic progressed.
“We did and we were absolutely dependent on that,” he said.
Pandemic plan was out of date
Sir Chris has admitted that a government strategy document published on March 3, 2020, was “out of date” when it was published.
“Once you are in an exponential curve you get out of date remarkably quickly,” he said.
Asked by Mr Keith about the plan and whether it was outdated at the time of publication Sir Chris agreed but claimed much of the advice was still useful. He denied hopes of containment were “lost weeks before” and that around the time the strategy was published was “close to the point where you had to abandon it”.
“The problem with this document is essentially there is nothing wrong with the document, it’s just too late,” he said. “If it had been published when it was first conceived it would be much more in date. This is one of the problems of trying to develop these kind of documents on the hoof during an exponential rise. That’s just a reality”.
Sir Chris added that he would “stand behind the publication” and “some document is better than no document”.
Ministers ‘not electrified’ by warnings
Sir Chris said there was an “opportunity where we could probably have moved up a gear or two across Government” in early February 2020 if the system had been “electrified” by the information it already had on Covid-19.
He said if MI5 had warned that 100,000 people could die in a terrorist attack, the chance the system would have carried on as it did would have been “quite small”.
He told the inquiry “the system is surprisingly bad, in my view, at responding to threats of this kind which are not in the national security system”.
Asked why no one “appears to have been electrified by the information that there was a massive threat”, Sir Chris added: “I mean, I think, in a sense that is my point, is the system is surprisingly bad at, in my view, responding to threats of this kind which are not in the traditional national security system ... I think it is largely to do with the way that the national security apparatus interprets its role.”
Sir Chris also claimed that those in government did not understand the concept of exponential growth prior to the pandemic.
“I think that one of the things that, however, we really did not find easy to get across, and I found this surprisingly, surprising, given that so many people in both politics and in the official system are trained in economics, is the extraordinary power of exponential growth to get you from small numbers to large numbers very quickly, people just don’t get that intrinsically.”
Under questioning from Mr Keith about claims of “oscillation and chaos” in government decision-making during the pandemic, Sir Chris said: “That’s correct but I think it’s a matter of record that many other nations had similar problems.”
He described Mr Johnson as having a “quite distinct style”, adding: “I think the way Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him.”
Mr Keith replied: “If I may – that’s a euphemism if ever I’ve heard one.”