Covid Inquiry: Whitty not consulted on break-up of Public Health England

Chief medical officer says lack of investment to blame for test-and-trace shortcomings
Matt Hancock (L) did not consult Whitty before announcing the break-up of PHE, the CMO said. Photo: Ray Tang/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

By Jim Dunton

21 Nov 2023

Chief medical officer Prof Sir Chris Whitty has told the Covid Inquiry that he was not consulted on the government’s decision to break up Public Health England.

Whitty, who was the government’s principal adviser on medical issues at the time the decision was taken, said he could not remember being asked for his opinion on the plan.

“I don’t recall being consulted either formally or informally. I think I was sort of told ‘this is going to happen’,” he told this morning’s session.

“My view is that my colleagues in Public Health England did this extraordinarily professionally. I think there are arguments either way in terms of splitting off the health-protection system from the rest of it. And I actually think that the UKHSA system that has been created is a very good one.”

However, Whitty said it was not the case that he had been involved in meetings that led to the decision, which was announced by then-health secretary Matt Hancock in August 2020.

He added that as the changes had been a “structural question”, rather than a clinical or public-health one, he did not necessarily need to be involved.

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Whitty about PHE’s difficulties in establishing large-scale capacity for testing people for Covid infection in the early months of the pandemic – despite the organisation’s success in creating a test for the virus in January 2020.

The chief medical officer said the UK had been in a very different position to South Korea and Germany, which had strong testing capabilities.

Whitty said South Korea had benefited from “very significant” investment in public health infrastructure following the MERS virus, while Germany had been able to call on its very strong industrial base.

“Absent public-health investment over a very significant period of time, you can’t just switch this on at short notice,” Whitty said. “Or an industrial base well designed for it.”

The chief medical officer said both issues were “major barriers” to the UK’s ability to step up testing capacity.

“We went a bit too late on the first wave”

Elsewhere in this morning’s session, Whitty was quizzed about claims made by former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and former Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies Sir Jeremy Farrar, both of whom suggested the CMO was an advocate for delaying the introduction of the first lockdown in 2020.

Keith referred in particular to “a tension between waiting and wading in” between Whitty and Vallance in January and February 2020, which Farrar mentioned in a recent book. 

Whitty replied: “Sir Jeremy, who is a good friend and colleague, had a book to sell. And that made it more exciting, I’m told.”

The CMO acknowledged differences in opinion between himself and Vallance but said they were “extremely small”. However, he also said that, on reflection, restrictions should have been introduced earlier in March 2020 than they were.

“I was very aware that we essentially had two different things we were trying to balance: the risk of going early, in which case you get all the damages with 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,” he said.

“My view, with the benefit of hindsight, is that we went a bit too late on the first wave, and I’ve been very clear about that for some time.

“The idea that there was not some tension between those two and that you could somehow go without cost earlier than was needed was incorrect. Everyone around the SAGE table would have agreed with that position.

“The degree of weighting between those two inevitably varied a bit between people and I was probably further towards ‘let’s think through the disadvantages here before we act’ and also in making sure in giving my advice that ministers were aware of both sides of the equation.”

Vallance said yesterday that the timing of the restrictions being introduced in March 2020 was partly down to a lack of "operational readiness".

The inquiry continues.

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