Covid Inquiry: Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer -insights into part one of his evidence

Whitty’s testimony didn’t come with the headline-grabbing revelations of other testimonies, but it was one of the most illuminating of the Inquiry so far, particularly in terms of timeline and where the government properly failed.

Here’s my impression of it and some key moments…

The first thing to note is just how qualified Whitty is – Epidemiologist, Consultant Physician, Infectious Disease Consultant, and expert in Tropical Medicine. Really, you couldn’t ask for a better-qualified Chief Medical Officer (CMO) to handle a pandemic. 

The next, is just how well he handled himself on the stand. As mild-mannered and passive(a fault I have long attributed to him) as he seems, he is sharp and clearly boardroom savvy too. He thought on his feet and pushed back on the KC quite firmly at times. 

Sadly, Whitty used up too much capital protecting ministers and other advisers. Whereas those advisers who left their posts have been a lot more critical (or honest) about government officials, Whitty is still putting up barriers and this seems borderline obstructive. 

He might, though, have got away with it to some degree.

Certainly, my first impression of Whitty through the first two years of the pandemic was that he was a bit of a nodding dog, too passive, and probably was complicit in the impotent government response. Now, I am not so sure. 

The KC’s premise seemed to be that Whitty should have escalated sooner and should have been more forceful with ministers. The latter point is probably right, although one suspects with a good PM and Cabinet he wouldn’t have needed to be pushy 

But as to whether Whitty should have done more sooner? I am not convinced.

He actually reacted very early at the start of January 2020 with a most impressive email to his colleagues at the DHSE and Public Health England (PHE).

He did then, as was his remit, delegate to PHE.

The KC didn’t fully buy this and seemed quite set that Whitty should have escalated this to Cabinet level by around 15 Jan.

Whitty disagrees, adamantly. His argument was that even though there was person-to-person transmission, pandemics can still peter out – like SARS1 & Zika. 

(You can watch the video of this at the bottom. It is worth seeing, as Whitty demonstrates he can stand up for himself.)

Effectively, the KC sees that the moment Covid moved to another country we should have known it was coming here. Whitty disagrees. I think Whitty is right here. 

28 Jan is when it gets really illuminating. Whitty clearly decides this needs escalating to the central government level. He says it was at this point he viewed the threat to the country overall (not just health) as substantial. It needed cross-government action. 

Now, at this point, Whitty begins briefing Number 10, the Cabinet Office, and the Treasury, as these are the ONLY bodies that can act across government.

The threat to the UK economy and security is significant so it needs central government to take charge. 

And the crucial point (that most of the mainstream media (MSM) have breezed over), on 28 Jan the central government did not take charge. There was no leadership. Despite what was a clear warning – Whitty was briefing them, which was unusual – no one took the reins. 

What is also remarkable (particularly for those of us involved at the time), Whitty did actually advocate for maximal suppression at that time. He spoke of needing to contact and trace and isolate all cases…Again, the government wasn’t interested. 

SAGE also advised on the next day, 29 Jan, that “HMG needed to change approach”.

By the 5 Feb it was very clear that Whitty and SAGE were united in calling for central co-ordinated action…it failed to materialise. 

Again, MSM seems to have missed this. A serving CMO clearly states that the goverment failed to shift up a gear “or two” at this point. Even the judge pressed him on it. This was clearly the moment the pandemic could and should have been seized. 

The KC looks at possible mitigating factors for government ministers and officials. ‘They didn’t understand exponential growth’ or probabilities and point out Whitty is still using the terms ‘if‘ the pandemic spread. KC suggests he failed to convey the facts to minsters properly. 

But really, this doesn’t wash (the jJudge didn’t seem to buy it, either). By this time there were dozens of meetings and Whitty/Vallance (Chief Scientific Advisor) were briefing ministers, news was of a pandemic,…it is inconceivable they didn’t know it was serious.

He had pushed for containment, it seems. 

And this brings us to the issue of containment. Had ministers acted on 5 Feb (when there were only a few cases) and green-lighted the use of isolation, then it could have made a massive difference. Whitty argues this was the window for proper containment. 

By the time the actual plan came out (it was delayed as it needed ministerial approval), the notion of containment similar to that of Australia, NZ, East Asia, had, Whitty says, passed. The opportunity to achieve effectively near zero Covid in the UK had passed. 

It is difficult to convey just how critical this point in time was in the pandemic. Had central government (Cabinet or Number 10) taken the reins as they had been asked to, moved to contain the virus, then our entire pandemic may well have looked very different. 

Yes, we will hear tomorrow about Johnson’s failure to act on 15 March that probably led to losing tensof thousands of lives. But this point in 5 Feb to 15 Feb was the point at which we lost the opportunity to avoid lockdowns and save perhaps over 100,000 lives.

And I have to say, the government had everything it needed to act at that time.

What again was most revealing, but not picked up by MSM, was the admission that Whitty getting any “containment” in the plan was a “negotiation”…

The government did not want to contain it. 

Where this advice was coming from remains unclear. Who was advising the government that “natural herd immunity” was a possible way through just isn’t clear. But it has come from somewhere…I do hope the Covid Inquiry asks Johnson where this idea came from. 

As Professor Christina Pagel points out, Whitty seems to brush over the utility of maximal suppression until vaccines. This was the right strategy [What we should have done. Ed.] and one presumably still open to us even at the time of action in March. Yes, we may have missed the opportunity to be a Japan, or NZ, but..? 

We still have part two tomorrow covering lockdown decisions, Eat out to Help Out, and the killer blow for government Ministers: the second lockdown delays. It will be interesting to see if Whitty can keep protecting his bosses then.