Abuse could deter scientists from key roles in future crises, Van-Tam warns

Former deputy chief medical officer says police asked him to move out of his home after his family were "threatened with having their throats cut"
Jonathan Van-Tam at a press briefing on Covid in October 2020. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Abuse directed at government scientists could deter people from taking up critical roles in future pandemics, Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam has warned – as he told the Covid Inquiry his family were "threatened with having their throats cut".

In a witness statement to the inquiry, the former deputy chief medical officer said he had considered resigning because of the “extremely hateful messages” he had received at the height of the Covid pandemic.

He said while he had “never doubted” his ability to fulfil his role as DCMO, he had struggled with the “considerable” pressures of the role – which involved responding to requests for advice “around the clock, seven days a week for lengthy periods with little to no respite” – combined with this abuse.

“It is against this background that I can say, there were times when I thought about leaving my role,” he wrote.

Asked about his comments at a hearing yesterday, Van-Tam said: "Where I think it finally got to me was the fact that I might have expected that if a crisis happened that this was my responsibility to bear.

"But I did not expect my family to be threatened with having their throats cut."

He said he had been asked by police to “move out in the middle of the night” for a few days while they investigated and considered making arrests.

He said he had declined because his family did not want to leave their pet cat.

“I only make this point because I'm so worried that if there's a future crisis, people will not want to sign up for these roles and these jobs, because of the implications that come with them,” Van-Tam told the inquiry.

He said the threats had come on top of the “horrendous” workload scientists in government were dealing with in the first few weeks of the Covid pandemic.

“It certainly was in the kind of 16-hours-a-day mark, and it certainly was seven days a week, it was very, very intense,” he said.

Van-Tam and McLean say they would have advised against Eat Out to Help Out

Later in the hearing, Van-Tam was questioned on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme introduced by then-chancellor Rishi Sunak, which provided money-off incentives for people to eat out at restaurants in August 2020.

Asked whether he or other government medical advisers had been consulted about the scheme before it was launched, he said: "Absolutely not."

"Had I been consulted, I wouldn't have made any distinction between Eat Out to Help Out and any other epidemiological event that brought different households into close contact with each other for the purposes of socialising, eating and consuming alcohol," he said.

He added: "I would have said: 'This is exactly encouraging what we have been trying to suppress and get on top of in the last few months'. So it didn't feel sensible to me."

Appearing before the committee this morning, government chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McLean said she was not aware of "any scientific advice" informing Eat Out to Help Out.

Asked what advice she would have given had she been asked, McLean said: "It would have been along the lines of advice that we were giving routinely, which is that there wasn't much room for increasing mixing and the kind of mixing that should be avoided is between households indoors."

"So we would have said: 'Could you not find some other way to stimulate the economy?'"

The responses echoed comments made the previous day by chief medical officer Prof Sir Chris Whitty, who told the inquiry there had been "no consultation" with him on the scheme.

"I made, fairly firmly, to No.10... the view that it would have been prudent, let's put it that way, for them to have thought about discussing it before it was launched," Whitty said.

The inquiry continues.

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