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

Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer during the pandemic, is set to become the latest goverment 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”.

Key Points

  • Chief medical officer says Cummings’ attendance at Sage meetings ‘caused quite a row’

  • Whitty admits UK acted too late after he’s branded ‘lockdown delayer’

  • Sir Patrick Vallance considered quitting over threats to him and his family

  • Ex-PM was ‘bamboozled’ by the pandemic

  • Boris Johnson described Treasury as ‘pro-death squad’, diaries reveal

  • Round-up: The winners and losers of the inquiry so far

Chris Whitty discusses Boris Johnson’s alleged views that long Covid was ‘b******s"

13:53 , Andy Gregory

Anthony Metzer KC, who was asking questions on behalf of long Covid groups, asked Professor Sir Chris Whitty if he knew of then-prime minister Boris Johnson’s thoughts on the health condition in October 2020.

He asked: “Were you aware that the prime minister wasn’t convinced that long Covid truly existed in 2020 and for a large part of 2021?”

Sir Chris replied: “I was aware of that.”

Mr Metzer continued: “Why didn’t you, as chief medical officer, disabuse the prime minister of his belief that long Covid was b******s in October 2020, when there were discussions about the need for a second lockdown?”

Sir Chris said: “Well, the particular document with a handwritten note was not one I was privy to until it was published by the inquiry.

“So to be clear, the answer is if I thought that there was an overriding need for the prime minister himself, or herself were it to be a different prime minister, to know about this because it was going to make a big difference to people with long Covid, that would have been a very material point.

“And I did, as you know in 2021, actually address issues of long Covid directly with the prime minister.”

Sir Chris added that Mr Johnson’s views on the condition were “irrelevant” to some degree because he was able to launch the research and analysis into the condition without them.

Chris Whitty reveals his ‘most prominent comms error'

13:22 , Andy Gregory

Sir Chris Whitty said comments he made on the risk of “behavioural fatigue” – where people would stop adhering to lockdown restrictions – were his “most prominent communications error”.

England’s former chief medical officer told the Covid inquiry he was “told off” by his behavioural science colleagues for his phrasing.

Full report: Whitty never told about Eat Out to Help Out but ‘should have been’

12:59 , Andy Gregory

The country’s top scientists were never informed about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, despite Boris Johnson saying they were consulted, Sir Chris Whitty has told the pandemic inquiry.

Jane Kirby has the full report:

Whitty never told about Eat Out to Help Out but ‘should have been’ – inquiry

WhatsApp ‘appalling’ for discussing technical issues, says Chris Whitty

12:35 , Andy Gregory

Professor Sir Chris Whitty said the messaging app WhatsApp was “an appalling mechanism” for discussing technical issues.

He told the Covid-19 inquiry: “We didn’t do very much technical stuff on WhatsApp unless it was extremely straightforward, like there have been three new cases or something of that kind.

“[For] something that has greater scientific subtlety ... WhatsApp would be would not be an appropriate approach for trying to do that.”

Independent Sage was not a ‘principally scientific’ input, says Chris Whitty

12:12 , Andy Gregory

The group of scientists self-styled as Independent Sage was not “principally a scientific input”, Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the inquiry.

The former chief medical officer said: “Independent Sage – despite the rather confusingly similar name – existed for a rather different purpose to Sage, let me put it that way. And I wouldn’t see it as principally a scientific input.

“It was the views of some distinguished scientists – all of whom I know and some of whom are also members of Sage, and gave their views directly through that.

“But the idea that Independent Sag was a scientific input in the way that SPI-M, SPI-O, or SPI-B were ... or the Royal Socity, or Academy of Medical Sciences, I think would be to misunderstand their role. And I think they would agree with that statement.

“I don’t think they saw themselves as equivalent to the Royal Sociey or one of the sub-groups of Sage.”

Whitty says he was not consulted about Eat Out to Help Out scheme

11:47 , Andy Gregory

Professor Sir Chris Whitty said that he – along with other government scientific advisers – were not consulted on Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Echoing what Sir Patrick Vallance told the inquiry on Monday, Sir Chris said: “My written statement makes clear there was no consultation.”

Hugo Keith, KC, counsel to the inquiry, then asked: “I need to put to you that in his witness statement, Boris Johnson says ‘It was properly discussed, including with Chris and Patrick’, do you agree with that?”

Sir Chris replied: “On this one, neither Patrick nor I can recall it and I think we would have done.”

He continued: “I made fairly firmly to number 10, not to the Prime Minister, the view that it would have been prudent, let’s put it that way, for them to have thought about discussing it (the EOTHO scheme) before it was launched.”

Sir Chris said that it was “perfectly legitimate” for the Treasury and other government departments to come up with different schemes and that “it may well be correct that the prime minister was under the impression we had been consulted” about the scheme even though they had not.

Second lockdown was ‘not necessarily inevitable’, says Chris Whitty

11:19 , Andy Gregory

Asked whether he considers that in public health terms, the government had a realistic option not to impose a second lockdown, Sir Chris Whitty said: “By the time it had got to the stage of the second lockdown, given the principle aims of ministers to minimise mortality, I couldn’t see many options.

“Whether other decisions could have been taken earlier to have prevented that, I think is a separate and quite important question. But once we got to that point, the realisation was there wasn’t really much choice.”

Pressed on whether there had been a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown or earlier tiered restrictions prior to that the second lockdown might not have been either necessary or as long, Sir Chris said: “I think most people would say that is the case.

“I think there are a variety of ways we could potentially have had at least a less onerous lockdown than we did on the second one. The third one, in my view, because it was a new variant, I would say probably we didn’t have many choices.

“But on this one, I thought it was inevitable by the time we got there but wasn’t necessarily inevitable had different decisions been taken.”

Government understood high chance NHS would be overwhelmed without lockdown, says Whitty

11:15 , Andy Gregory

Pressed on whether anyone in government said clearly by 23 March 2020 that the NHS would not just buckle, but would break without lockdown, Sir Chris Whitty replied: “I think that ultimately this understanding is what took ministers to the point of realising that – if they wished to minimise mortality – there was no option.

“To understand that, if they did not take this action, it might not be 100 per cent certain that the NHS would get to that point, but that there was a high enough probability that it was simply not something that was an acceptable thing for the government to do if its aim was to minimise mortality.

“So that is very clearly – this risk was very, very heavy in driving – in my view – the decisions that ministers subsequently took.”

UK was already in ‘deep trouble’ on weekend before first lockdow

11:09 , Andy Gregory

By the weekend before the first lockdown was implemented, the UK was already in “deep trouble” and could not afford to wait to see if earlier measures would bring the R number for the rate of infection below 1, Sir Chris Whitty has said.

Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, asked whether any consideration had been given to waiting to see the impact of earlier measures before deciding if this “final draconian step was indeed necessary”.

Sir Chris replied: “It wasn’t just a matter of trying to pull it down just below 1.

“It was really trying to shrink this wave as fast as possible. So I think I don’t recall any serious debate that said at this point ‘let’s wait’.

“I think the debate at this point was the numbers here are looking reasonably stark.”

Decision not to lock down would have been ‘very difficult to justify’, says Whitty

10:58 , Andy Gregory

Asked about the idea that the government overreacted in imposing lockdown, Sir Chris Whitty said: “No one is absolutely certain exactly what would have happened under that circumstance, but I think there is a high chance that R would have continued significantly above 1.

“By this stage we were talking about large numbers. So once you start doubling up from large numbers – even if it’s over four, five, six weeks – you’re still going to end up in a very, very difficult place.

“So I think it would have been very difficult to justify – if the aim of ministers was to minimise mortality, which was very clearly their stated aim at this point – to continue where we were. We had to do something to make it as good as we could get that the numbers would definitely start to fall ... and we had seen – in a very different setting, in a different culture etc – in China this could be achieved.”

Fears of Covid deaths was ‘central driver’ in lockdown decision, says Chris Whitty

10:53 , Andy Gregory

Fear of vast numbers of deaths from Covid was the “central driver” in public health terms for the final decision to enter lockdown, Sir Chris Whitty has said.

“My view is that was the central driver,” the former chief medical officer told the inquiry. “But it was also the recognition that it was the direct deaths from Covid but also the deaths that would accrue were the NHS to be even more under pressure than it actually was. Which was very substantially.

“That was the other very major thing to prevent by using lockdown and other measures.”

Pressed on whether there was an understanding in goverment over what the differences in fatalities would be between previous sets of restrictions and those imposed on 23 March: “The answer is ‘yes’, but by one important remove.

“And the remove was ‘the key was to get R below 1’. Because until that happens, the pandemic is doubling up every number of days. And it was clear that after the 16th [March], due to people’s remarkable actions, that the doubling up number was going to be extending ... and we had to get a point to where it was halving.”

UK was ‘a lot further along the path’ than officials realised in early March, says Chris Whitty

10:29 , Andy Gregory

Asked what degree of inevitability there was that lockdown was needed on the weekend of 15 March 2020, Sir Chris Whitty said there was a realisation that the UK was “a lot further along the path than we thought we were”.

That meant a lot of activity had to be accelerated “in very short order”, he said, adding that the ideal was to get R below 1 with the least disruptive combination of measures.

There was also “a realisation that we were really not going to get on top of this with anything other than quite a large number of measures”, he told the inquiry, adding: “In theory, had the force of transmission been somewhat lower, it might have been possible to get R below 1 reliably – that’s a key word – short of a full mandatory lockdown.

“But once we got to a certain point of force of transmission based on the modelling we had, with all the caveats that go with it, it looked extremely unlikely that we could reliably get to that stage.”

He added: “My view is that the stay at home measures brought in on the 16th by the prime minister were virtually inevitable and had been for some time – it was a matter of when rather than whether – that was a huge intellectual Rubicon that the government crossed at that stage and I was very relieved on 17th when that occurred.

“We hadn’t realised how close to that point we were until very shortly before it.”

10:22 , Andy Gregory

You can watch the inquiry live here:

Public was ‘quite rightly upset’ at suggestions of herd immunity goal, says Chris Whitty

10:19 , Andy Gregory

Suggestions that the government was pursuing herd immunity “quite rightly upset and confused a lot of people” at the outset of the pandemic, said Sir Chris Whitty.

Put to him that the government was seen to promote herd immunity as a goal for several weeks, Sir Chris told the inquiry: “I never saw anybody on the record, or anybody sensible, aiming for it as a goal. I think some people tried to explain it as ‘this is what would happen over time’. I think, frankly, unhelpfully.

“I definitely made communication errors through the pandemic. But my view was this scenario where communications were a long way from helpful for the public, which is really what communications should be about.

“Because it gave an impression the government was pursuing a policy which it absolutely was not pursuing. And reasonably people were upset about that policy because it would have been the wrong policy – but it wasn’t the policy.”

Great Barrington Declaration 'was flawed at multiple levels’

10:06 , Andy Gregory

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.”

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

09:59 , Andy Gregory

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 ways – 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.”


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

09:50 , Andy Gregory

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.”

Jonathan Van-Tam to take the stand

08:46 , Andy Gregory

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.

Scientists felt border closures would not work, inquiry hears

Tuesday 21 November 2023 20:00 , Alexander Butler

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.

Whitty says failure to understand exponential growth was a problem

Tuesday 21 November 2023 19:00 , Alexander Butler

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.

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

Tuesday 21 November 2023 18:00 , Alexander Butler

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.”

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

Tuesday 21 November 2023 17:00 , Archie Mitchell

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.

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

Tuesday 21 November 2023 16:50 , Archie Mitchell

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”.

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

Tuesday 21 November 2023 16:40 , Matt Mathers

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

‘Eat Out to Help Out’ was a good idea – and the Covid inquiry’s rewriting of history is dangerous

Tuesday 21 November 2023 16:15 , Matt Mathers

The then chancellor had to protect public health and the economy, writes John Rentoul. Which is why I raise a glass to his efforts to save the hospitality industry (as I did in my Covid gastropub).

Read John’s full article here:

‘Eat Out to Help Out’ was a good idea | John Rentoul

Mother ‘powerless’ to help daughter in care home during Covid, inquiry told

Tuesday 21 November 2023 16:01 , Matt Mathers

A mother has told an inquiry her daughter felt she “lost her family” due to restrictions in care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Verona Gibson, a member of Care Home Relatives Scotland, told the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry on Tuesday her daughter’s physical and mental health declined.

Full report:

Mother ‘powerless’ to help daughter in care home during Covid, inquiry told

Pandemic plan was ‘woefully deficient, even for a flu pandemic, Whitty

Tuesday 21 November 2023 15:40 , Matt Mathers

Pandemic preparedness plans in place ahead of the Covid-19 crisis were "not particularly helpful" and would have been "woefully deficient" even for a flu pandemic, England’s chief medical officer has suggested, Archie Mitchell reports.

Many have suggested that issues early in the pandemic were down to the fact that the UK’s pandemic preparedness plans were drawn up to deal with flu instead of a coronavirus.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the UK Covid-19 public inquiry that it was clear in early 2020 that the plan was not going to be particularly helpful in the crisis and had been drawn up by people who had just gone through the swine flu pandemic, which had a very low death rate.

He said there are some good "building blocks" within the document but many of these blocks had to be constructed "in a rush" in the early days of the pandemic.

"I looked at the pandemic flu plan at the point when we were beginning to worry about this ... And it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to give us any particular help, frankly," he said.

"So my view was we didn’t have a plan that was going to be useful from a prevention or management point of view - it had a lot of, a large number of useful components within it.

‘Nobody looking at this could say this was ideal,’ Sir Chris Whitty says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 15:28 , Matt Mathers

The chief medical officer has told the Covid inquiry that “nobody looking [at Britain’s handling of the pandemic] could say it was ideal”, Archie Mitchell reports.

The stunned Covid inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC said: “That is, if I may say so with the greatest respect, quite an understatement.”

But professor Sir Chris Whitty added that he was “not convinced that had we done things differently, it would have led to a different outcome”.

Pressed on whether he could have raised the alarm earlier in the pandemic and with more importance, Sir Chris said: “It’s difficult to work out where you can go once you have talked to all the people I talked to. And it is a very long list of people.”

He said former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance also tried to “escalate this to the centre” through the office of Dominic Cummings. “So it is not that there were not attempts to do this,” Sir Chris said.

Whitty defends February meeting in which ministers heard just a ‘short update’ on Covid

Tuesday 21 November 2023 15:11 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty has defended a meeting in February 2020, at a time when he was aware the pandemic posed a “massive threat” to the UK, in which ministers were given just a “short update” on Covid, Archie Mitchell reports.

The inquiry was shown a letter from Downing Street to the Department of Health summing up a meeting on February 4.

“We began with a short update on coronavirus. Following an update from the CMO, the prime minister stressed the need to continue to explain our stance to maintain public confidence in the plan,” the letter said.

The Covid inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC said: “There wouldn’t appear, professor, on the face of that paragraph, to be much by way of reflection of the massive threat that you described.”

Sir Chris said the pandemic was still not a certainty. And Sir Chris said he stressed that in a reasonable worst case scenario Britain was facing 100,000 to 300,000 deaths “which, to be clear, it is pretty accurate compared to where we are, sadly, now”.

‘We should have quarantined travellers from China… but it would not have made a difference'

Tuesday 21 November 2023 14:54 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty said the government should have encouraged travellers arriving from China to quarantine for up to two weeks regardless of symptoms, even though it “probably wouldn’t have made much difference”, Archie Mitchell reports.

Many of the cases imported to Britain were from neighbouring European countries such as Italy, the chief medical officer told the Covid inquiry.

But he said while the power of hindsight has led people to take “unduly harsh views” about what could have been done differently during the pandemic.

“Here’s an area which I think we probably should have done something different, even though it probably wouldn’t have made much difference,” Sir Chris said.

Early response problems were due to a lack of data, Whitty says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 14:47 , Matt Mathers

Issues with the UK’s early response to the pandemic have been described as a “data problem” by Professor Sir Chris Whitty.

He told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry: “The big problem we had in early March, in my view, principally arose from the fact we didn’t realise how far on the path we were and the force of transmission.

“Which was a data problem, and a testing problem, rather than because we lacked a document in February.”

He apologised to inquiry counsel Hugo Keith for “sounding slightly cautious about the importance of documents”.

He added: “But I’m just being practical about how emergencies tend to play out and the documents are often quite late in the process.”

Chris Whitty has defended the lack of a plan for the Covid pandemic

Tuesday 21 November 2023 14:23 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty has defended the lack of a plan for Covid, claiming it would “almost certainly have been the wrong plan”, Archie Mitchell reports.

The chief medical officer told the Covid inquiry said: “I’m going to cause upset to some of my planning colleagues, but I’m going to do it anyway.

“A plan that was laid out, this is how the playbook should run, would almost certainly have been the wrong plan and could easily even have slowed us down.

“Because we’d have then spent ages arguing about whether this was the right plan and adapting the plan.”

Sir Chris Whitty turns on the charm

Tuesday 21 November 2023 14:15 , Archie Mitchell

Asked to slow down by Covid inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC, so that the stenographer can keep up, Sir Chis Whitty quipped: “It is my enthusiasm to answer your excellent questions.”

“Long may it continue,” Mr Keith replied.

Idea there was a Covid plan was ‘optimistic at best’, Whitty says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 14:11 , Archie Mitchell

Sir Chris Whitty said the idea Britain had a plan to deal with the kind of pandemic Covid turned out to be was “optimistic at best”.

The chief medical officer told the Covid inquiry he had “no illusions” that the UK and other western nations were “well set up” to handle a major pandemic with significant mortality.

Sir Chris said: “We did not have a plan that was going to be useful from a prevention or management point of view.

“It had a large number of useful components within it, there wasn’t nothing helpful there.

“But the idea there was a respiratory pandemic plan, for the kind of pandemic this was going to be… that we could just take off the shelf and follow the playbook was was optimistic at best.”

Politicians never ‘applied their minds’, former Supreme Court judge says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 14:08 , Alexander Butler

Politicians never “applied their minds” to considering the economic cost of lockdowns, former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption has said.

Speaking about the latest evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme it was not former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance or chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty’s “job to work out what the economic downsides were”.

“It was the job of the politicians, and the main lesson to emerge from all this is that none of the politicians were prepared to grasp this nettle.

“They should have looked at the non-scientific factors - the economic, the financial, the social, the educational costs.

“What the present evidence confirms is that nobody really ever even applied their minds to that.”

Lord Sumption (Supreme Court)
Lord Sumption (Supreme Court)

Cummings's appearances at Sage sparked ‘bit of a row’

Tuesday 21 November 2023 13:16 , Matt Mathers

There was a "bit of a row" when former no 10 senior adviser Dominic Cummings said he wanted to attend Sage meetings during the Covid-19 crisis, the UK Covid-19 public inquiry has heard, Archie Mitchell reports.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty said: "When it was known that Mr Cummings himself sometimes came to Sage, this caused quite a row actually, I wasn’t the person who made the decision to make that possible."

He suggested Mr Cummings did not try to influence discussions or conclusions of the meetings, adding: "I thought it was perfectly sensible that if one of the most senior advisers to the Prime Minister, if she or he wished to, could listen in on Sage, struck me as a sensible thing to do ... they could ask questions potentially, but try to bias the answer that was given and that would be extremely unacceptable, but that wasn’t the situation, in my view, that happened."

Sir Chris said the "central view" of Sage meetings were presented in the minutes of the meetings but that he and Sir Patrick Vallance presented the outlier opinions verbally to ministers.

Sir Chris Whitty defends decision on timing of first Sage meeting

Tuesday 21 November 2023 13:14 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty was pressed by Covid inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC on whether he should have called a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) earlier in the pandemic, Archie Mitchell reports

The chief medical officer robustly defended the timing of his decision, telling the inquiry: “There are various points along the path… where I would, in retrospect, have made different decisions. This is not one of them.”

Mr Keith asked whether it was not necessary to have acted earlier than January 16, 2020.

“Not in my judgement. That was my judgement. And I’m going to repeat it that is still my judgement,” Sir Chris told the inquiry.

‘Following the science mantra was millstone around my neck,’ Whitty says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 13:03 , Matt Mathers

Professor Sir Chris Whitty has described the pandemic mantra of "following the science" as being a "millstone" around his neck, Archie Mitchell reports.

The chief medical officer for England told the Covid-19 Inquiry: "Both (Sir) Patrick (Vallance) and I, when it initially happened - remembering that our job was to get science into Government - thought ‘oh this is a good thing, Government is recognising that science is important’.

"Very soon we realised it was a millstone around our necks and didn’t help Government either.

"Because it blurred the distinction between the very firm, clear demarcation that must and did exist between technical advice and political decision for which people are then answerable in the ballot box and in Parliament."

Decision-makers cherry-picked scientific advice, but by accident, Whitty claims

Tuesday 21 November 2023 12:51 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty said scientific advice was cherry-picked at times, but insisted that it was not by key decision-makers in government such as Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak, Archie Mitchell reports.

The chief medical officer also insisted it was done by accident.

But Sir Chris’s claim contradicts former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who told the inquiry officials "cherry-picked" advice and ministers used scientists as “human shields".

Whitty: Covid would have been chaotic no matter who was in charge

Tuesday 21 November 2023 12:45 , Matt Mathers

The pandemic would have been chaotic regardless of who was prime minister, Sir Chris Whitty has said, Archie Mitchell reports.

The chief medical officer said it was “quite often chaotic”, but he was “very doubtful” it was not chaotic in multiple other governments.

“If the opposition had won the election, it would have been Jeremy Corbyn. If Mr. Johnson had been unable to continue, it would have been Ms Liz Truss,” he said.

Sir Chris added: “They would have had different sets of challenges and advantages as leaders. It’s the job of the technical people to work with whoever is there.”

Sir Chris also said he would not make “commentaries on individual politicians”, but described Boris Johnson’s decision-making process as “unique to him”.

A flabbergasted inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC interrupted to say: “That’s a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one.”

The chief medical officer went on to say the former PM has “quite a distinct style” but that is was not his role to comment on individual politicians.

‘All the options were very bad, some were a bit worse’

Tuesday 21 November 2023 12:38 , Matt Mathers

It took “a while” for ministers to realise that Covid was “not going to be in any way easy” and grasp that it would “go on for a long time”, Sir Chris Whitty has told the Covid inquiry, Archie Mitchell reports.

Asked whether there were ever good or easy decisions during the pandemic, the chief medical officer said: “There were two things I said right from the beginning… There were no good options. All the options were very bad, some are a bit worse, and some are very, very bad.

“And the second is this was going to go on for a long time.”

He said it “took a while for some people to internalise that this was not going to be in any way easy, it was going to be long and it was going to involve significant loss of life”.

‘Decisions taken in pandemic were political,’ chief medical officer

Tuesday 21 November 2023 12:30 , Matt Mathers

Decisions taken by the government during the pandemic were “clearly” political, Sir Chris Whitty has said, contradicting repeated claims by ministers that they were “following the science”, Archie Mitchell reports.

The chief medical officer told the Covid inquiry that there were examples of the government “changing facts to fit the political agenda” and “ignoring or twisting facts”.

“We can give advice of a technical nature as to what would happen in this situation or that one, but ultimately, these are political decisions,” Sir Chris said.

He said there is healthy debate about the balance of public health against personal freedoms, but “where it was not legitimate” was when facts were changed to suit political agendas.

Scientists are ‘worried about potential lawsuits’

Tuesday 21 November 2023 12:25 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty said he has “always been worried” about the potential for “frivolous or actual” lawsuits based on his role in responding to the Covid pandemic, Archie Mitchell reports.

The chief medical officer said as an employee of the government he is “much less concerned”.

But he told the Covid inquiry it is “ambiguous at best” the extent to which scientists are “automatically covered by some form of indemnity” against legal claims.

Sunak continues to work ‘extremely closely’ with Whitty

Tuesday 21 November 2023 12:15 , Matt Mathers

Rishi Sunak “continues to work extremely closely” with chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, Downing Street said when asked about his evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Asked whether the prime minister still has confidence in Whitty, his official spokesman told reporters on Tuesday: “The government set up this inquiry to listen to all facts and hear all the evidence from all sides and then come to a judgement.

“That’s what we will do and you will hear from the prime minister at the time of inquiry’s choosing.

“And I’m sure that public understands the importance of hearing all the evidence and all the facts – and indeed the inquiry’s conclusion – before making their mind up.

“I’m not going to get drawn into different bits of evidence in a piecemeal fashion.

“The prime minister continues to work extremely closely with the chief medical officer, not least on the new laws around smoking, which is a massive public health intervention.”

Rishi Sunak said last year that scientists were too ’empowered’ during the pandemic (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Archive)
Rishi Sunak said last year that scientists were too ’empowered’ during the pandemic (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Archive)

Scientists should have ‘cottoned on to’ possibility of lockdown earlier, Whitty says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 11:59 , Matt Mathers

Scientists should have “cottoned on to” lockdown being a possibility in the early days of the pandemic, England’s chief medical officer has told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty’s witness statement to the probe said “the absence of contemplation” of lockdown being a reality “might be considered a failure of imagination by a group of scientists who understood the nature of epidemics and their history”.

Asked by inquiry counsel Hugo Keith what the reference meant, he said that within Sage he was “one of the people who was most concerned” that the “reality” of past pandemics was captured.

Sir Chris was also concerned there would be a winter surge, irrespective of where the first wave of the virus happened.

“That wasn’t derived from modelling, that was derived from, in a sense, historical experience,” he added.

Whitty defends Sage members

Tuesday 21 November 2023 11:42 , Matt Mathers

Professor Sir Chris Whitty has defended the membership of the Sage group of experts, amid criticism that the Government’s primary source of scientific advice lacked certain expertise.

Lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC said statements given in evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry claimed there was a lack of public health representation to provide insights into the broader social impact of measures.

In response, Sir Chris said: “Sage only really advised ministers and only ministers for particular sets of questions.

“Government is a much larger body and it was advised for on multiple different routes.

“I think… we need to be a little bit careful that a few of the people when they say Sage didn’t have all the expertise, what they actually mean is Sage didn’t have their particular expertise and preferably them.”


First lockdown was too late, Whitty says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 11:29 , Matt Mathers

Professor Sir Chris Whitty said that “with the benefit of hindsight” the first lockdown in March 2020 was “a bit too late”, Archie Mitchell reports.

“The degree of weighting - I’m talking here as in terms of putting weight rather than wait as in time - between those two, inevitably varied a bit between people,” Sir Chris told the inquiry.

“And I was probably further towards ‘let’s think through the disadvantages here before we act’ and also in making sure that in giving my advice that ministers were aware of both sides of the equation.”

‘Not thinking of lockdown was failure of imagination’

Tuesday 21 November 2023 11:27 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty has said scientists “should have cottoned on” to the fact a national lockdown might be needed to tackle Covid in the early stages of the pandemic, Archie Mitchell reports.

And, in his witness statement to the Covid inquiry, he said Sage not thinking of it was a “failure of imagination”.

The chief medical officer said that in early and mid-February, as Covid began to spread in the UK, the advisory group did not look in detail at a potential mandatory lockdown.

Would have been ‘wrong’ to narrow focus of whole medical profession to Covid, chief medical officer says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 11:17 , Matt Mathers

England’s chief medical officer has said it would have been "wrong" to narrow the focus of the whole medical profession to Covid-19 in early 2020.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that by early February that year a "great majority" of his work and his team’s work was around the new virus.

"We were putting a large amount of time into communicating it, putting resources into it, trying to get the medical profession ready for it," he said.

"At a point where, in my view, we were moving increasingly far away from a probability this could go back to nothing.

"But we weren’t yet at a point where we could say that definitively - we were still a long way away from, for example, the WHO declaring a pandemic. And as I say, we did not at this stage, and did not for some time in fact, have internal transmission."

Sir Chris added that it is "important to recognise that it would have been wrong to swing the whole of the medical profession over to this".

"Even at the height of the pandemic more people died of causes not Covid than died of Covid," he said. "Every one of those deaths is tragic on both of those sides."

Cabinet secretary Simon Case could miss Covid inquiry evidence again due to illness

Tuesday 21 November 2023 11:00 , Matt Mathers

Britain’s top civil servant may not give evidence to the Covid inquiry in the coming weeks as planned due to an ongoing illness.

Cabinet secretary Simon Case, who was permanent secretary in Downing Street during the pandemic, is on medical leave from his current role.

Full report:

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case could miss Covid inquiry again due to illness

Whitty’s gallows humour shown to the inquiry

Tuesday 21 November 2023 10:55 , Matt Mathers

Chris Whitty said in the early stages of the pandemic that one of two things was going to happen, Archie Mitchell reports.

“Either I will be with Susan and a few of our other colleagues in front of the committee or inquiry explaining why it is that we failed to prepared adequately for this armageddon (which actually would not be an armageddon) or we will be sitting in front of the committee saying why did you spend all this money on an epidemic which never happened,” he said in March 2020.

“I have got my script prepared,” he added.

Sir Chris Whitty: I was not a delayer

Tuesday 21 November 2023 10:50 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty has rejected a description of him as a “delayer” in the early stages of the pandemic, saying that he warned of “very serious” consequences without action to tackle Covid, Archie Mitchell reports.

The chief medical officer told the inquiry that while he did not push back on lockdowns, he did think “the downside of those actions should be made transparent”.

Sir Chris said he ”rejected and will continue to reject” suggestions he warned ministers against overreacting to the pandemic.

Whitty: Friction between me and Vallance was oversold

Tuesday 21 November 2023 10:39 , Matt Mathers

Sir Chris Whitty has said Sir Jeremy Farrar “had a book to sell”, brushing off claims of a rift between himself and Sir Patrick Vallance, Archie Mitchell reports.

The chief medical officer told the Covid inquiry that Sir Jeremy’s claims, that there was “friction” between him and the former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick, “made it more exciting”.

“My own view was that the differences were extremely small,” Sir Chris said.

Sir Jeremy’s book, Spike: The Virus Vs. The People, described friction between advisers about when to impose lockdown restrictions in 2020.

Proffessor Sir Chris Whitty giving evidence

Tuesday 21 November 2023 10:22 , Matt Mathers

Professor Sir Chris Whitty is now giving evidence to the inquiry.

We’ll bring you updates throughout the session.

You can also watch it live on our YouTube channel:

Live: Chief medical officer Chris Whitty gives evidence to Britain’s Covid inquiry

ICYMI: Boris Johnson was ‘bamboozled’ by science during the pandemic, Patrick Vallance reveals

Tuesday 21 November 2023 09:36 , Matt Mathers

Boris Johnson was “bamboozled” by the science during the pandemic and had to have details explained to him “repeatedly”, the Covid inquiry has heard.

Sir Patrick Vallance’s bombshell diary entries revealed in excruciating detail how the former prime minister struggled to understand graphs and “just could not get” some scientific concepts.

Boris was ‘bamboozled’ by science, ex-chief adviser tells Covid inquiry

Whitty arrives at inquiry

Tuesday 21 November 2023 09:05 , Matt Mathers

Professor Sir Chris Whitty has arrived for his appearance in front of the inquiry later this morning.

England’s chief medical officer was seen entering Dorland House a little earlier, dressed in dark suit.

He will take the stand at 10am.


Full report: Rishi Sunak thought government should ‘let people die’, Covid inquiry told in bombshell claim

Tuesday 21 November 2023 08:53 , Matt Mathers

As we reported earlier, Rishi Sunak has been accused of saying the government should “let people die” during the Covid pandemic.

The accusation, made by former chief of staff Dominic Cummings, was documented in Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary. The former chief scientific adviser made the note following a “shambolic” meeting about Covid restrictions in October 2020.

Here is the full report:

Rishi Sunak thought government should ‘let people die’, Covid inquiry told

Sir Patrick faced threats to his family and considered resigning

Tuesday 21 November 2023 08:38 , Matt Mathers

In a 241-page witness statement to the inquiry, published on Monday, Sir Patrick revealed that he received threats and abuse during the pandemic.

The former government science adviser told the inquiry he considered resigning and that he “certainly found the pressure” on himself and his family “difficult”.

“Like many others I received abuse and threats and I was concerned for the wellbeing and safety of my family,” he said. “At times those factors did lead me to question whether I should continue.

“I also found people breaking the lockdown rules very difficult and considered what I should do in response, but decided that I would help most by continuing with my job.”

Sir Patrick  Vallance (PA Wire)
Sir Patrick Vallance (PA Wire)

Minister dodges questions on Sunak’s alleged ‘let people die’ comment

Tuesday 21 November 2023 08:11 , Matt Mathers

A government minister dodged questions about Rishi Sunak’s alleged “let people die” comment during the Covid pandemic.

Laura Trott, chief secretary to the Treasury, was asked about the accusation, made by Dominic Cummings and revealed in yesterday’s evidence, in an interview with Sky News this morning

Ms Trott said she was a backbencher at the time the alleged remark was made, adding: “What I saw during Covid was a government trying to save both lives and livelihoods”.

More comments below:

Tuesday 21 November 2023 07:41 , Matt Mathers

Good morning and welcome to The Independent’s live coverage of the Covid inquiry.

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, will give evidence today in a highly anticipated appearance.

He will take the stand from 10am, when we’ll have live updates.

Until then, we’ll bring you all the highlights from yesterday’s session with Sir Patrick Vallance, the former government science adviser.

Rishi Sunak to blame for deaths, Caroline Lucas claims

Tuesday 21 November 2023 05:30 , Alexander Butler

Prime minister Rishi Sunak is to blame for excessive deaths during the pandemic, former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas said.

“Confirmed by Sir Patrick Vallance at the Covid Inquiry today - Rishi Sunak’s grossly irresponsible Eat Out To Help Out scheme drove a second wave of Covid. He is to blame for the damage caused. He needs to be held accountable,” Ms Lucas wrote on X.

Covid ‘fed off inequality’, Vallance says

Tuesday 21 November 2023 04:30 , Alexander Butler

Sir Patrick Vallance said he was “aware” the pandemic and the measures required to tackle it would have an unequal impact.

He says he stands by his witness statement which says that the virus “fed off inequality and drove inequality”.

Pressed on whether this knowledge formed part of the advice given at senior decision-making levels, Vallance can’t recall exactly how early he drew attention to this.

But, he says he thinks it was “pretty early on” - and that Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, did the same.

Boris Johnson was ‘bamboozled’ by science during the pandemic, Patrick Vallance reveals

Tuesday 21 November 2023 03:30 , Alexander Butler

Boris Johnson was “bamboozled” by the science during the pandemic and had to have details explained to him “repeatedly”, the Covid inquiry has heard.

Sir Patrick Vallance’s bombshell diary entries revealed in excruciating detail how the former prime minister struggled to understand graphs and “just could not get” some scientific concepts.

The former chief scientific adviser – one of the government’s most senior advisers during the pandemic – told the inquiry about how he kept daily notes as a “brain dump” to help him “decompress” — and never intended them to “see the light of day”.

Boris was ‘bamboozled’ by science, ex-chief adviser tells Covid inquiry

Rishi Sunak was ‘not pleased’ at early prospect of London lockdow

Tuesday 21 November 2023 02:30 , Alexander Butler

Rishi Sunak was not “terribly pleased” with the prospect of imposing a lockdown in London during the early stages of the pandemic, Sir Patrick Vallance has told the Covid-19 Inquiry.

Giving evidence on Monday, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser discussed meetings with ministers during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.

Sir Patrick said emerging evidence of the scale of infections in London meant the capital “needed more” restrictions than other parts of the country.

Rishi Sunak was ‘not pleased’ at early prospect of London lockdown

Sunak suggested ‘handling the scientists’ and not virus, Covid probe is told

Tuesday 21 November 2023 01:30 , Alexander Butler

Rishi Sunak was overheard saying the Government should focus on handling its scientific advisers rather than the spread of Covid-19, the inquiry into the UK’s pandemic response has been told.

A series of diary entries from former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance was shown to the probe on Monday.

Mr Sunak’s comment was allegedly made in July 2020 as plans were being made to reopen the country after the first national lockdown.

Sunak suggested ‘handling the scientists’ and not virus, Covid probe is told