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Action against Covid-19 was taken too late, Whitty tells pandemic inquiry

England’s chief medical officer said the risks of going into lockdown too early or too late had to be balanced.

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Action should have been taken earlier against the spread of Covid-19, Sir Chris Whitty has said, though he denied warning ministers against lockdowns.

In sometimes tense exchanges with Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, England’s chief medical officer described how he had set out the downsides of locking down but argued that was not the same as saying it should not happen.

Sir Chris was put under intense scrutiny following revelations from former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance on Monday that he and Sir Chris did not always see eye-to-eye on the speed at which action was needed.

Sir Chris said he was “very aware” that there were two things that needed to be balanced – “the risk of going early (into lockdown or other similar measures), and the risk of going too late”.

Sir Chris said there was inevitable variation between what people thought when balancing all the issues.

He added: “And I was probably further towards, ‘let’s think through the disadvantages here before we act’ and also in making sure that in giving my advice that ministers were aware of both sides of the equation.”

Sir Chris said differences between himself Sir Patrick were actually “extremely small”.

UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Hugo Keith KC was involved in terse exchanges with the chief medical officer (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

“My own view was that actually the differences were extremely small.”

He said both he and Sir Patrick thought it was “appropriate” for Sir Chris to consider issues such as the impact of lockdowns on non-Covid illnesses and death as well as factors such as loneliness.

Sir Chris told the inquiry: “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.

“The biggest impacts of those would be areas of deprivation and those in difficulties and those living alone and so on.

“So, I was very aware that we essentially had two different things we were trying to balance the risk of going too early, in which case you get all the damages from this with actually fairly minimal impact on the epidemic, and the risk of going too late, in which case you get all the problems of the pandemic running away.”

Mr Keith pressed Sir Chris on whether he was more cautious than others in wanting to see how Covid would unfold.

Sir Chris said: “I’ve rejected, and I will continue to reject, your characterisation of this as overreaction, because that implies that I thought that in a sense the action should not happen.

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

“I don’t consider that incorrect.”

Earlier, 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.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Sir Chris Whitty told the inquiry there was a ‘bit of a row’ when Dominic Cummings attended Sage meetings (James Manning/PA)

Sir Chris did agree with Mr Keith that Public Health England (PHE) struggled to scale up testing when it was needed.

He also said he was not told PHE would be disbanded but he did not think there was any reason why he would be consulted.

Sir Chris also told the inquiry:

– The “central view” of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings were presented in the minutes of the meetings, but Sir Chris and Sir Patrick presented the outlier opinions verbally to ministers.

– There was a “bit of a row” when former no 10 senior adviser Dominic Cummings attended some Sage meetings. But Sir Chris defended the move, saying: “I thought it was perfectly sensible that if one of the most senior advisers to the prime minister, if she or he wished to, could listen in on Sage, (it) struck me as a sensible thing to do…” However, he said it would be “extremely unacceptable” if that person tried to bias the answers given by Sage.

– Modelling at the start of the pandemic was intended to test a number of scenarios, not to provide predictions. At the start of the pandemic, real-life data was dealing with small numbers. Sir Chris said he preferred dealing with real data, adding “data trumps models every time.”

–  Sage was not in a position to say what Government’s strategic position was until the Government itself had a strategic position. “And sometimes the Government was waiting for Sage to make a strategic position,” Sir Chris said. “And that potential circularity I think, is something which I think bears some thought.”

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