Chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty has said he is not overstepping his role by advising the public to limit their social contact over the Christmas period, stressing that ministers' authority is "paramount" in setting coronavirus rules.
In an appearance before parliament’s Health and Social Care Select Committee on Thursday in which he also spoke in withering terms about commentators who believe Covid-19 is being given undue focus by medical professionals, Whitty said he was "extremely clear" on his role as an adviser.
At the beginning of Thursday’s session, committee chair Jeremy Hunt asked Whitty to clarify his advice from earlier in the week in which he urged the public to be selective about the festive events they attended.
The chief medic said the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was fast-moving and highly transmissible and that attending fewer gatherings was a way to avoid missing important get-togethers because of illness or self-isolation.
“Basically what I’m saying to anybody who has something that really matters to them, concentrate on that thing and build out from there rather than just accepting any invitation,” he said.
“I’m trying to avoid making other people’s choices for them. But I would go on to say really clearly people should prioritise what really matters to them and then cut down on the things that don’t.”
Science and Technology Select Committee chair Greg Clark, who was a guest at Thursday’s session, asked Whitty how he balanced giving advice about prioritising social contacts directly to the public with the principle that ministers decide policy on important issues.
“I am extremely clear on what I think the role of an adviser is, and what I consider the very paramount role of ministers is,” Whitty said.
“From the very first chief medical officer in the 1850s, chief medical officers have always given advice to the general public. But ministers reserve to themselves – rightly – anything to do with the law, anything to do with balancing against the economy.
“This is advice that any chief medical officer would have given and I don’t actually think any minister is feeling that I’m treading on their toes on this one. This is my job.”
Whitty said he believed questions about further measures to restrict the spread of Covid were “very much” for ministers.
“It’s drawing a line between those two,” Whitty said. “The expectation is the chief medical officer and medical advisers will talk as a doctor, independently, and give advice, as long as they don’t stray into the job that is specifically for ministers.”
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, told MPs she believed good data on hospitalisation rates and the risk of severe illness and death for people with the Omicron variant would not be available before Christmas.
“The earliest we will have reliable data is the week between Christmas and new year,” she said at Thursday’s session.
Whitty said data on the Omicron variant from South Africa would be available before UK figures were. But he cautioned that the UK’s advanced status with booster jabs compared with South Africa would need to be factored in.
'Inversion of reality'
In the same session, Whitty spoke out against claims healthcare profesisonals were over-prioritising Covid, to the detriment of cancer patients and people suffering from other conditions.
He said the idea that pandemic-related restrictions were the cause of problems with other treatments was a “complete inversion of reality”.
Whitty was speaking two days after Boris Johnson faced the biggest parliamentary rebellion in his two years and five months as prime minister, when 99 Conservative MPs voted against his “plan B” measures aimed at stopping the spread of Covid.
Asked for his views on the suggestion that Covid-19 was being given undue focus by health services, Whitty said the belief came from “people who have no understanding of health at all”.
“I don’t think it’s said by anyone who’s serious, if I’m honest,” the CMO said. “And when they say it, it’s usually because they want to make a political point.
“The reality is that if you ask any doctor working in any part of the system they will say this: What is threatening our ability to do cancer... is the fact that so much of the NHS effort, so many of the beds are having to be put over to Covid and that we’re having to work in a less-efficient way because Covid is there.”
Whitty said finding a way to manage Covid that minimised the impact on everything else was “absolutely central” to what the government and the NHS was trying to do.
“In a sense, I completely agree that there are multiple other things in addition to Covid, but if we don’t crack Covid at the points when we’ve got big waves [of infection] – as we have now – then we do huge damage elsewhere,” he said.
“The idea that the lockdowns have caused problems with things like cancer is complete inversion of reality.
“If we had not had the lockdowns, the whole system would have been in deep, deep trouble and the impact on things like heart attacks and strokes and all the other things that people must still come forward for when they have them would have been even worse than it was.”