The government claimed they were “following the science”. That was a lie. They wanted to influence and direct the scientists and present the science only when it suited them (or they were forced to acknowledge it). In July 2020, Vallance recalls Rishi Sunak, the then chancellor, talking in a meeting about the need to manage the scientists, not the virus. Sunak did not realise Chris Whitty was in the meeting too. So not just Johnson who was wrong and was making bad decisions.
The second round of public hearings examining the UK's handling of the COVID pandemic - Start of a huge week
I think we can safely blame the whole cabinet for making bad decisions but, of course, BJ was the boss and was responsible for any implementation of such decisions. He, naturally, will bluff and bluster, but it’s clear that he was way out of his depth and in over his head …
Andrew O’Connor KC brings up another diary excerpt that seems to suggest that on that day, 25 October 2020, Boris Johnson was unconcerned about Covid deaths.
Vallance wrote: “PM meeting begins to argue for letting it (Covid) all rip. Saying yes, there will be more casualties but so be it - ‘they have had a good innings’.”
The inquiry hears that Johnson may not have been alone in thinking this way. According to Vallance’s diary, Dominic Cummings said: “Rishi [Sunak] thinks just let people die and that’s okay”.
What fine leaders we breed …
Sir Patrick Vallance has finished more than five hours’ worth of detailed evidence about the major decisions taken during the pandemic. Here are some of the highlights form his testimony:
In the early months of the pandemic, he said he was concerned over the speed of the government’s “operational response”, when it became clear Covid infections were rising sharply
The first national lockdown, announced on 23 March 2020, was imposed about a “week too late”, he added
He said Boris Johnson was “clearly bamboozled” by some scientific concepts and briefing the former PM was “hard work” at times, although the situation was similar in other European countries.
Vallance confirmed scientific advisers were not consulted in advanced about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, introduced by then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak in the summer of 2020.
Vallance said it was “highly likely” that the scheme led to more deaths
“He is so inconsistent,” he wrote about Boris Johnson at the time. “We have a weak, indecisive PM.”
Vallance says Johnson had been “very sceptical” about long Covid, and briefly suggested the virus should be allowed to “rip” through the population
His diaries showed he was particularly critical of political decision-making in the run up to the second national lockdown in the autumn of 2020.
In another diary entry he described some cabinet ministers as “meek as mice” when shown the plan for the tier system of regional restrictions in England.
Tomorrow, Tuesday 21 November, Prof ChrisWhitty will take the witness stand, and we will get to hear what he thought of the timing of lockdown and more.
I can believe Sunak being a psychopath but I think Johnson is just lazy and can’t be arsed with doing anything that requires effort.
Professor Sir Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, is giving evidence at the UK Covid inquiry
Sir Chris became a household name during the pandemic, giving regular televised news conferences
In a letter from the solicitor to the inquiry to what are known as its core participants, “private medical information” relating to Mr Case has been shared “in order to update them on his ability to give evidence during the Module 2 hearing and seek any representations which they wished to make”.
Core participants in the inquiry include government departments, charities and groups representing bereaved families.
Those who have been sent the letter are banned from sharing any information within it and “this order remains in force for the duration of the inquiry and at all times thereafter”.
Recipients are told that “the High Court and the Court of Session have the power to imprison or fine for any breach of this order”.
The existence of the letter, which was sent on Monday, has been made public on the Covid Inquiry’s website.
The Cabinet Office has not commented on the letter.
Blimey … a gag order …
The inquiry is taking a short tea break after almost an hour and a half of questions on the early response to Covid in the UK - and Professor Sir Chris Whitty’s role in its delivery.
Here’s a look at the key lines so far:
- Whitty tells the the inquiry he took the lead role in responding to Covid in late January
- He dismissed claims that there was tension with Professor Sir Patrick Vallance at the time - and that any differences in approach they had were “small”
- Whitty urged care in exaggerating any such differences - and accompanying suggestions he was the more cautious of the two
- In balancing the risk of introducing social measures either too early or too late, he conceded that “we went a bit too late on the first wave”
- He added that it became clear by mid-March that the UK would be “in very deep trouble” if it did not take action
- Whitty also rejected the characterisation that he warned the government against “overreacting”
- In February 2020, he said it would have been wrong to swing the whole medical profession to Covid
- On Sage - the board that provides advice to support government decision makers during emergencies - Whitty said it was too small to begin with, before becoming “arguably” too large
Whitty seems to be a bit of a ditherer … "On the one hand … on the other … "
Apparently, he’s a polymath so maybe internal conflicts are inevitable for him …
While the inquiry is taking a break for lunch, now is a good time to bring you an overview of what Sir Chris Whitty has said so far since the tea break:
England’s chief medical officer described all the options open to the government on Covid as “very bad, some a bit worse, some very, very bad”
Whitty defended the speed of the expert response to the emerging pandemic, as well as the use of public health modelling to test policy options available to ministers
He dismissed suggestions he had warned the government against “overreacting”, and also denied that tensions emerged with fellow senior adviser Professor Sir Patrick Vallance in January 2020
Whitty says the way Boris Johnson made decisions was “unique to him” - but does not personally criticise the ex-PM
And he says it caused “quite a row” when Dominic Cummings began coming to Sage meetings - but Whitty says he thought it was a “sensible” idea
I think I will christen him “Whitty the Wimp” since, patently, he’s covering his own Rs and not criticising those on whom he depends for his multiple positions:
Here’s what we learnt from England’s chief medical officer this afternoon:
- Whitty denied that the UK’s Covid teams did not consult with foreign nations on tackling the pandemic, saying he met with the WHO director-general and was “absolutely dependent” on international experts
- Whitty said that a lock down was still not being considered in February 2020 but that they were looking at restricting mixing between households
- He did agree, with hindsight, guidance that allowed for outdoor mass gatherings sent the wrong message as to the seriousness of Covid
- Whitty also revealed that the UK’s flu pandemic plans were not “useful” at all for the Covid pandemic and a new plan needed to be made from scratch
WTW may be circumspect but even his language indicates that BJ’s response to the threats of the COVID pandemic was a shambles …
Yesterday we heard from Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer for England. He’ll be giving evidence again today from around 09:30 GMT.
Later, we are also expecting to hear from the former Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam.
What have we heard from Whitty so far this morning?
Professor Sir Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, was questioned this morning - for a second day - by Hugo Keith KC.
Whitty was examined about his role as one of the government’s foremost advisers during the Covid pandemic.
Today, Whitty was asked about his approaches to managing the Covid infection rates. This is what we learnt:
There was a large focus on herd immunity and whether it was achievable by June 2020. Herd immunity occurs when a large proportion of the population becomes immune to a disease following infection
Whitty says he had no idea whether the population would get to the natural herd immunity threshold which had to impact 80 per cent of the population. It was less than 20% at that time
He also added that the debate around herd immunity came from a “mashed up” understanding, saying it was a communication error that gave the impression it would have worked
On the lockdowns, Whitty says had the transmission rate been lower, we wouldn’t have had a mandatory lockdown in March 2020. But because of the rate of infection was ever increasing, a lockdown happened
Whitty argued that a mandatory lockdown was needed for people to follow the Covid measures
I well remember the under-informed armchair “experts” advising us that herd immunity was the natural way to deal with a viral outbreak …
It is distressing that herd immunity was even considered given the massive and massively damaging impact that trying to achieve 80% with Covid would have caused. It shows a wide spread lack of understanding or thinking through consequences.
Other topics covered this morning:
Pete Weatherby KC, who is representing the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, questions whether the impact of asymptomatic transmission - when a person with Covid does not present symptoms but passes the virus on - was “underplayed” during the pandemic’s early days (January 2020). Whitty replies: “At this point we were probably thinking it wasn’t a major driver of pandemic”.
Whitty is asked about the Diamond Princess - a luxury cruise ship where Covid took hold in February 2020 - an analysis of which showed that asymptomatic transmission was having “a real impact”. He is asked if they should have understood asymptomatic transmission better at that point. Whitty also says there is still no confidence now about the number of asymptomatic transmissions at the time but acknowledges it was a major issue.
Some time was spent on the UK government’s focus on England, to the detriment of the other UK nations. Whitty responds that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was difficult for officials and scientists to obtain data from both England and the wider UK. Whitty says data collection became more diverse as the pandemic progressed.
Other points of contention and response between UK countries included facemasks for schoolchildren and the treatment of minorities. Whitty is now asked whether certain groups were identified as being more at risk from the pandemic. He is then asked whether proactive steps were taken to protect the certain minorities that were identified but he avoided giving a direct answer.
Anthony Metzer KC, who represents groups supporting those with long Covid, asks if Whitty was aware that during 2020 and part of 2021, Johnson thought the condition didn’t exist. “I was aware,” Whitty answers. Asked why he didn’t do more to convince Johnson otherwise, Whitty insists that research and “NHS activity” on long Covid was triggered without the PM needing to be involved.
Whitty still covering his Rs and providing only the most “diplomatic” of answers.
The UK Covid inquiry is sitting again - and now it’s the turn of Jonathan Van-Tam to face questions.
He was England’s deputy chief medical officer (CMO) during the pandemic - behind Chris Whitty.
I can understand why they liked the idea of herd immunity ,they wouldn’t have had to do anything at all.
Another day at UK Covid inquiry comes to end. Here’s a quick round-up of what we learned from Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam:
Told the inquiry he considered leaving his job in 2020 after his family received death threats - and said he wanted to ensure this didn’t put people off applying for high-level jobs in the future
He said he and Whitty had differing ideas about how seriously Covid should be taken at the very start of the pandemic
Van-Tam said an earlier lockdown would have been preferable, but acknowledged this was easier said with “the benefit of hindsight”
The professor said he was “absolutely not” consulted on the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme - something that’s also been said by Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, another top pandemic-era official (1)
On mass gatherings, he called out the government’s decision to allow the continuation of mass sporting events at the beginning of the pandemic, saying this was “unhelpful”
And Van-Tam criticised the Covid tier system, which saw different areas of the country given different levels of restrictions - saying it could’ve worked in theory, but was too slow in practice and didn’t “serve us very well at all” as a result
Van-Tam wrote a letter in May 2020, in which he warned Cabinet Secretary Simon Case about restrictions being lifted too early, saying “there was a risk this would all go too fast”. He wrote a letter rather than just saying it because he “wanted to leave a mark in the sand here.”
Forthright answers from Van Tam …
(1) Sunak looks set to be asked about advice sought for Eat Out to Help Out
Eat Out to Help Out keeps coming up in this Inquiry. Senior civil servants in Downing Street didn’t know about it before it was launched. This week the government’s two most senior scientific advisors at the time didn’t know about it either. The initiator of the scheme, Rishi Sunak, who was then Chancellor, insists the government took advice from scientific advisers throughout the pandemic.
Professor Dame Angela McLean has arrived and is being questioned
Rishi Sunak was described as “Dr Death” by the country’s most senior scientist during a pandemic crisis meeting that discussed the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry heard.
Dame Angela McLean, who became the first female Chief Scientific Adviser earlier this year and sat on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) during the Covid-19 pandemic, made the comments in private messages to a colleague during a Zoom meeting chaired by Boris Johnson.
During the meeting, titled “Should the Government intervene now and if so how?”, in September 2020, she also sent a WhatsApp to fellow Sage member Prof John Edmunds where she described Prof Carl Heneghan, a prominent lockdown critic, as a “f—wit”.
In her evidence, Dame Angela McLean said there was a “lack of appreciation that very quick decisions were needed” when it came to dealing with the exponential growth of the virus.
Asked if the issue of outbreak in care homes during the pandemic was foreseeable, Prof Dame Angela McLean replied: “Yes”.
Prof Dame Angela McLean has said the government should have introduced lockdown two weeks before it actually did so on 23 March 2020.
Scientists were not consulted about the government’s Eat Out to Help Out initiative, Prof Dame Angela McLean has said.
Honest answers from another forthright witness …