Covid inquiry live: Jonathan Van-Tam to testify after Chris Whitty says pandemic plan was ‘woefully deficient’

Boris Johnson’s deputy chief medical officer to be grilled over decision-making during pandemic

Archie Mitchell,Andy Gregory
Wednesday 22 November 2023 10:06
Boris Johnson was bamboozled by the pandemic, Patrick Vallance says

Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer during the pandemic, is set to become the latest government adviser with a front-row view of the crisis to take the stand at the Covid inquiry this week.

His testimony on Wednesday follows that of former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and ex-chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, who told the inquiry on Tuesday that Britain’s pandemic plans were “not particularly helpful” and would have been “woefully deficient” for even a flu pandemic.

During Monday’s session, it emerged that Sir Patrick privately referred to Sir Chris as a lockdown “delayer” – as “palpable tension” emerged between the two over policy.

Sir Patrick made an entry in his own diary in February 2021 in which Sir Chris had spoken to him about the inquiry they knew was coming, and whether the lockdown in March 2020 had been imposed too late. “He was a delayer of course,” Sir Patrick wrote.

However, Sir Chris brushed off claims of a row, claiming differences between the pair “were extremely small”.


Great Barrington Declaration 'was flawed at multiple levels’

The “Great Barrington Declaration” – which called for Covid to be allowed to spread through parts of the population deemed to be at lower risk – was merely a variant of a herd immunity strategy, Sir Chris Whitty agreed.

“I thought it was flawed at multiple levels. I thought it made an assumption of full immunity that would be lifelong – which they didn’t state, but was an assumption I thought was extremely unclear, and indeed proved to be incorrect,” he said.

Citing Boris Johnson’s own hospitalisation with Covid, he cricitised “the idea you could properly shield or identify the right people”, adding: “The idea that this was a sensible proposition struck me as zero, actually.”

Andy Gregory22 November 2023 10:06

‘Confusion’ around herd immunity did not help policy-making, Chris Whitty says

There was a lot of “confusion” surrounding the concept of herd immunity which was “not helping policy-making”, Sir Chris Whitty has said.

Sir Chris Whitty said that even if Covid infection provided lifelong immunity, around 80 per cent of the population would have had to be infected for herd immunity to occur. By contrast, less than 20 per cent of the population had been infected by the end of the first wave in June 2020, Sir Chris said.

“Herd immunity was used in two completely different was – the term was – and this caused confusion to those who were confused by herd immunity, which in my view was a lot of people. Some people were meaning the herd immunity threshold – the point at which, for practical purposes, further waves are unlikely, which is very high. The modellers were using it in the sense of gradually increasing levels of immunity, meaning that the effective force of transmission gradually decreases, but not to the point where there’s no waves.

“There was muddle up between those two completely different uses of the term. Frankly, there was a large amount of chatter about this among people who at best had half-understood the issue.”

Sir Chris said his sole contribution on the issue prior to 20 March 2020 “was to say to people ‘this is very complicated, please don’t talk about it’. Not because I wanted to hide it, but because I thought a very uninformed discussion was forming that was not helping policy-making.”

He added: “It was clearly a ridiculous goal of policy and a very dangerous one, and a lot of what was being said could have led to considerable confusion – and indeed did.”

Andy Gregory22 November 2023 09:59

Many in Downing Street did not understand reality of exponential growth, says Chris Whitty

Sir Chris Whitty is still giving evidence this morning, and is being questioned about emails from Professor Neil Ferguson to Downing Street on 10 March 2020 warning of the urgent need for measures to contain the spreading virus.

Asked whether he was satisfied that the government understood the severity of the situation in mid-March, despite others fearing the government “didn’t get it”, Sir Chris told the inquiry: “I think it depends how you define the words ‘get it’.

“I think I’m content that the government was in receipt of the information from Sage and the fact that people on Sage felt urgency was needed. And this escalated, and you can see this from the Sage minutes.”

He added: “Did I think that all parts of the Downing Street machinery equally were seized of the urgency of it? I [did] not. But in a sense, the job of Sir Patrick [Vallance] and me amongst others – but also perfectly reasonably Dr Warner, Mr Cummings and others – was to try and ensure that people in the centre did understand the urgency of action.

“Because I think ... the numbers we’re talking about on the face of it, at this point, that were actually being reported were small.”

On 14 March 2020, 590 cases and 10 deaths had been reported, he said, adding: “Of course, we knew subsequently they were higher than that. What, I think, people were really not able to conceptualise was how exponential growth would turn from those smaller numbers – still each one a tragedy – to really very large numbers in an extremely short period of time because of the doubling time.

“And I think this bit is a period where getting that through was not always straightforward.”

While Dominic Cummings was among those who realised “this was heading in a very difficult direction”, Sir Chris said: “But I don’t think everyone in the building did.”

Appearing to reference Boris Johnson, he said: “This was not an individual ... this was a lot of people really not getting what exponential growth was actually going to mean.”

Andy Gregory22 November 2023 09:50

Jonathan Van-Tam to take the stand

Good morning, ahead of another full day of testimony at the Covid inquiry.

We’ll be using this blog to bring you live updates as former deputy chief medical officer Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam takes the stand, followed by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Dame Angela McLean.

Andy Gregory22 November 2023 08:46

Scientists felt border closures would not work, inquiry hears

Whitty confirmed the group of scientific advisers - including himself - were confident that closing the borders would have “a very minimal effect”.

What might have happened if China had shut its own borders right at the start of the pandemic is a “different matter”, he went on to say.

Alexander Butler21 November 2023 20:00

Whitty says failure to understand exponential growth was a problem

Hugo Keith KC, the lead counsel to the Covid inquiry, is questioning Whitty over the government’s plans to slow down the spread of transmission.

Whitty said “there was recognition of a significant threat” by ministers.

But he adds one problem was, prior to the pandemic, many people didn’t understand the idea of exponential growth.

Alexander Butler21 November 2023 19:00

Whitty: Mass gatherings 'one thing I would do differently'

Sir Chris Witty has been questioned on how mass gatherings, such as outdoor sporting events, were allowed to continue during the pandemic.

He told the inquiry: “Seeing mass gatherings going on, signalled to the public that the Government couldn’t be that worried.”

He said the problem wasn’t gatherings themselves but the impression that gave “of normality, at a time when you’re trying to signal anything but”.

He added: “That is one of the things I would push to do differently.”

Alexander Butler21 November 2023 18:00

Whitty: ‘Ministers were confusing, not enlightening, public’

Sir Chris Whitty said he repeatedly implored ministers not to talk about scientific concepts they did not entirely understand because they were “confusing, rather than enlightening, the public”.

England’s chief medical officer was pressed about the mish mash of terms at the early stages of the pandemic to describe the government’s approach such as “squashing the sombrero”, “flattening the curve”, “mitigating” and “suppressing”.

Sir Chris said: “Ultimately, my view was a lot of rather fanciful discussion occurred, including between people who did not, in my view, fully grasp the technical aspects they were talking about.”

“I think there was a confusion, some of it stemming from an actual strategic lack of clarity, and some of it in my view stemmed from if I’m honest, a little knowledge being a dangerous thing,” Sir Chris said.

Archie Mitchell21 November 2023 17:00

Sir Chris Whitty: ‘My WhatsApps are rather dull… compared to other people’

England’s chief medical officer has described his WhatsApp messages as “rather dull” compared to others at the heart of government during the pandemic.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty said Covid inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC has probably “had the privilege of reading my rather dull, compared to other people’s, WhatsApps”.

Other witnesses before the Covid inquiry have been shown foul-mouthed tirades by the likes of Dominic Cummings, including repeatedly describing those at the top of government as “c***s”.

Archie Mitchell21 November 2023 16:50

The way Boris Johnson made decisions was ‘unique’ – Sir Chris Whitty

The way Boris Johnson made decisions during the Covid pandemic was “unique” and he had a “distinct” style, Sir Chris Whitty has told the public inquiry.

England’s chief medical officer refused to be drawn into personal criticisms of the former prime minister but acknowledged the Government was “chaotic” as the pandemic unfolded.

Full report:

The way Boris Johnson made decisions was ‘unique’ – Sir Chris Whitty

England’s chief medical officer has been giving evidence to the UK’s public inquiry into Covid-19.

Matt Mathers21 November 2023 16:40

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