Government would have paid more attention if threat had been terrorism – Whitty

Sir Chris Whitty giving evidence at Dorland House in London (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Sir Chris Whitty giving evidence at Dorland House in London (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

The Government would have paid much more attention to a terrorist threat than it did to the risks posed by Covid-19 amid a “systemic failure”, the public inquiry into the pandemic has heard.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty 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.

Under questioning from Hugo Keith KC, lead inquiry to the counsel, Sir Chris agreed there was a systemic failure but said he was not criticising individuals.

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”.

During a meeting on February 4 with then-prime minister Boris Johnson, then-health secretary Matt Hancock and other Government officials, Sir Chris said it was his view that if a pandemic did occur “it was reasonable to think… that we would be looking on first pass at maybe 100,000 to 300,000 deaths”.

He was in the meeting and when risks were raised, he said “this wasn’t some maverick coming in and saying this”.

“This was on the basis of Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) meetings chaired by the chief scientific adviser, Cobra had met, the World Health Organisation has by now declared a public health emergency of international concern, this is all over the news.

“Now, the point I would like to make on this – because I think this is actually something we really do need to think about very seriously in Government – is that had, let us say, the director general of MI5 or the Chief of the General Staff come in and said there is a possibility of 100,000-plus people sadly dying from a terrorist attack or from an attack on the UK, the chances that this would have been the response in the letter and that the system would have continued as it did – the next Cobra meeting still chaired by the secretary state for health and social care – I think is quite small.

“And the reason I’m making that point is this is not a new consideration.

“Pandemic infection, flu… has been top of the National Risk Register for years, this is not a new potential threat.”

He said his worry had always been “that hard geopolitical threats are treated in a different way” to natural threats.

“And that, I think, is something collectively that we should think about without ascribing this to any person.

“I think the same could very easily have happened under any number of prime ministers and with a number of others in the room.”

He said there was an issue with the “system, in my view, underplaying, relative to other threats, the natural threats including health threats”.

He added: “Had we essentially had the central Government electrified by this – I’m not saying the outcome would have been different, but I think it would at least have led to a stronger all-of-Government think-through of all the potential consequentials.”

He said that “under ideal circumstances” there would have been a different response.

Earlier, Sir Chris said the way Mr Johnson made decisions during the pandemic was “unique” and he had a “distinct” style.

He also defended not raising the alarm across Government in mid-January 2020 about coronavirus, despite his deputy, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, warning that a pandemic was imminent.

In extracts from his witness statement read to the inquiry, Sir Jonathan said he became “seriously concerned” about Covid on January 16 2020 and “my view was that this would be a significant pandemic”.

Mr Keith said Sir Jonathan raised his concerns with Sir Chris but Sir Chris’s “response was to wait and monitor developments”.

Sir Chris told the inquiry: “Jonathan, and I think he would agree with this, is quite instinctive in some of these decisions – very often, rightly.

“He is a very able epidemiologist and thinker in this area, but if I had said to him, ‘OK, what is the evidence on which this is going to be a pandemic?’, he would have said, ‘It just feels like that to me’.

“That’s quite a narrow basis on which to make quite big decisions.”

In other evidence, Sir Chris was asked if Mr Johnson “had a difficulty in reaching clear, consistent positions”.

Sir Chris replied: “I think that the way that Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him.

“He has quite a distinct style but I think lots of other people have got quite distinct styles.”

Sir Chris said he felt his role was not to “make commentaries on individual politicians”.

Asked about the efficiency of the administrative system around Mr Johnson, Sir Chris said: “I thought that the civil servants, particularly the health and economic private secretaries, did a very, very good job in difficult circumstances.

“I think that the political system around the prime minister was more mixed.

“It was quite often chaotic, but actually, I’d be very doubtful if it wasn’t chaotic in multiple other governments.”

Earlier, Sir Chris said action should have been taken earlier against the spread of Covid but denied warning ministers against lockdowns.

In sometimes tense exchanges with Mr Keith, the chief medical officer said he set out the downsides of locking down but argued that was not the same as saying it should not happen.

UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Hugo Keith KC (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Sir Chris was put under scrutiny after 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” of 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”.

He added: “My view is, with the benefit of hindsight, we went a bit too late on the first wave.”

Asked about claims in (tropical medicine expert) Sir Jeremy Farrar’s book about “friction or tension” between the top advisers in the early days of the pandemic, Sir Chris replied: “Well, Sir Jeremy, who is a good friend and colleague, had a book to sell and that made it more exciting, I’m told.

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

Sir Chris also told the inquiry:

– 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 it “struck me as a sensible thing to do” as long as there was no suggestion of biasing the work of Sage.

– The pandemic mantra of “following the science” was a “millstone” around scientists’ necks “and didn’t help Government either”.

– There were “no good options” for dealing with Covid. “All the options were very bad, some are a bit worse, and some were very, very bad.”