Covid Inquiry: Government wasn’t ‘electrified’ by threat from virus, Whitty says

Chief medical officer says “hard geopolitical threats” are treated differently to health emergencies
Prof Sir Chris Whitty gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry yesterday

By Jim Dunton

22 Nov 2023

Chief medical officer Prof Sir Chris Whitty has called for a rethink of the way government views natural threats and health emergencies in comparison with military or terror risks in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

Whitty shared his thoughts at yesterday’s session of the Covid Inquiry, when he was asked about a 4 February 2020 Department of Health and Social Care “stocktake” meeting with then-prime minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock.

The session included only a “short update” on coronavirus from Whitty and a call from Johnson on the need for public confidence in the government’s plans to be maintained before other topics were broached – including delivering on election manifesto commitments for the NHS.

Whitty said the meeting had taken place at a time when he had already briefed Johnson that the pandemic could result in between 100,000 and 300,000 lives being lost in the UK, a prediction that has turned out to be accurate.

The chief medical officer said his concern was that government had a history of treating “hard geopolitical threats” in a different way to natural threats or hazards.

Whitty said it was hard to imagine a warning about the potential loss of life from an attack on the UK delivered by the director general of MI5 or the chief of the general staff having the same buisness-as-usual response as the warnings given in early 2020 on Covid.

He said government needed to “think really seriously” about its approach.

“Had we essentially had 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.

Whitty added: “The system is surprisingly bad at, in my view, responding to threats of this kind which are not in the traditional national security system.

“I don't think that's an insoluble problem. I think it is largely to do with the way that the national security apparatus interprets its role, and I think it's an area where we could probably make significant changes.”

“The way Johnson took decisions was unique to him”

Earlier in the day, inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Whitty how efficient the administrative system around Johnson had been in the early weeks of the pandemic.

“I thought the civil servants, including particularly the health and economics private secretaries, did a very, very good job in difficult circumstances,” Whitty replied. “I think that the political system around the prime minister was more mixed.”

Whitty said No.10 was “quite often chaotic” but added that colleagues working at the heart of government in other countries said the same thing about their situation.

Previous inquiry sessions have heard repeated evidence of fraught decision-making in No.10 with Johnson routinely struggling to reach consistent positions. Whitty was asked what his experience had been.

“I think that the way that Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him,” the chief medical officer replied.

“That’s a euphemism if ever I’ve heard it. What do you mean by that?” Keith responded.

Whitty said: “He has a quite distinct style. But I think lots of other people have quite distinct styles.”

Yesterday Whitty also told the inquiry that he had given two pieces of advice on the nature of the decisions ministers faced from the start of the pandemic and believed they still held true.  

“The first is that there were no good options. All the options were very bad. Some were a bit worse. And some were very, very bad,” he said.

“The second is that this was going to go on for a long time. So if you took an option you had to be prepared to see it through for many months to years, rather than just seeing it as a temporary situation.”

The inquiry continues. 

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