Prof Sir Chris Whitty says Sage discussed 'downsides' of lockdown

Professor Sir Chris Whitty has said Sage discussed the “downsides” of lockdown after he was called a  “delayer” by Sir Patrick Vallence.

The former chief scientific adviser, told the Covid Inquiry that he and Sir Chris had disagreed over the speed with which restrictions on liberty should be introduced.

But when pressed over the issue on Tuesday Sir Chris said Sage had discussed the “downsides” of early lockdown.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Sage advisory committee, previously claimed there was “palpable tension” between Sir Chris and Sir Patrick during lockdown discussions, but Whitty snubbed these claims at the Inquiry.

04:36 PM GMT

Covid Inquiry has ended

The Covid Inquiry has ended. Thank you for following our live coverage. Be sure to check the website for the latests updates and analysis.

04:35 PM GMT

Allowing mass gatherings sent wrong message, says Whitty

Sir Chris has said despite mass gatherings not initially being seen as a significant factor in transmitting infections, with hindight the messaging was unhelpful.

He said: “Seeing mass gatherings signalled to the general public that the government can’t be that worried.”

04:31 PM GMT

Government strategy 'out of date' when published, says Whitty

Sir Chris has admitted that a government strategy document published on March 3, 2020, was “out of date” when it was published.

Asked by Mr Keith about the plan and whether it was outdated at the time of publication Sir Chris agreed but claimed much of the advice was still useful.

He said: “You can argue such a document should not have existed but in a sense I think some document is better than no document.

“I actually think in most elements this is a pretty good document given that we had no document previously that anybody could look at, so I’m going to stand behind the publication of the document without saying that I agree that every single word of it was exactly current at the point it came out”.

04:25 PM GMT

Sir Chris on 'squashing the sombrero'

The chief medical officer was asked about the need to “squash the sombrero” - the phrase coined by then prime minister Boris Johnson - about flattening the curve, as well as strategies around Covid mitigation, and suppression.

He told the Inquiry: “My view was quite a lot of rather fanciful discussion occurred including between people who didn’t in my view, fully grasp the technical aspects they were talking about.”

Some of this stemmed from “an actual strategic lack of clarity” while some of it reflected “a little knowledge being a dangerous thing” he told the inquiry.

03:54 PM GMT

Government 'didn't understand the concept of exponential growth'

Sir Chris said that those in government did not understand the concept of exponential growth prior to the pandemic.

“I think that one of the things that, however, we really did not find easy to get across, and I found this surprisingly, surprising, given that so many people in both politics and in the official system are trained in economics, is the extraordinary power of exponential growth to get you from small numbers to large numbers very quickly, people just don’t get that intrinsically.”

03:24 PM GMT

Government was not 'electrified' by threat of Covid in early pandemic

Sir Chris said no one in government appeared to be “electrified” by the threat of Covid early in the pandemic.

Asked why no one was “appears to have been electrified by the information that there was a massive threat”, Sir Chris added: “I mean, I think, in a sense that is my point, is 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 think it is largely to do with the way that the national security apparatus interprets its role”.

03:19 PM GMT

Government response 'slower' than it should have been, says Whitty

Sir Chris Whitty said the pace of ministers’ decision making in early 2020 meant “we were slower than we should have been” when responding to the emerging crisis.

But the chief medical officer told the Covid Inquiry that the delay was largely due to the “system” rather than individual politicians.

Sir Chris said the “technocratic” elements of the strategy he was in charge of “could just get on”.

He added: “Once you get into things that require political decisions and the big decisions, whether it be issues of borders, issues of lockdown, all these issues, these require things that have huge economic implications.

“Those fundamentally are ministerial decisions and I think that is where we were definitely slower than we should have been for a variety of reasons.”

03:12 PM GMT

Border closures would not work according to scientists, the Inqury hears

Sir Chris Whitty confirmed he and other scientific advisers were confident closing borders would have “a very minimal effect” in preventing the spread of Covid.

He added that the effectivness of China closing its borders at the start of the pandemic was a “different matter”.

03:07 PM GMT

'Idea of stopping pandemic is an illusion', says Whitty

Once in pandemic territory, there is no hope stopping the spread, Sir Chris Whitty told the Covid Inquiry.

He said: “What we wanted people to realise is that once you’re in pandemic territory, the idea of stopping it is an illusion.”

The chief medical officer said that the only option available after the virus has reached a certain stage is to delay.

02:54 PM GMT

Reader comments on Covid Inquiry

Here’s how Telegraph readers have been reacting to Professor Sir Chris Whitty giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry:

Anthony Smith said: “When will the inquiry start to question whether lockdowns were the right approach? They are only asking whether we should have had more lockdowns or fewer lockdowns, not whether we should have had lockdowns at all.”

Paul Mullally said: “The only conclusion I’ve reached is that we have a rather obnoxious bunch of public health officials who seemed desperate to inflict lockdown sooner and longer while now trying to pass the buck during this inquiry.”

Dominic Lyne said: “It’s inevitable that the Government would talk about the possibility of people dying, rather than a lockdown. I can’t believe anyone said ‘let them die’. That’s just rhetoric. But they must have discussed the pros and cons, of course you would. Comments taken out of context and throwing people under the bus is not a good look.”

JJ Jones said: “Were Sage qualified to make an assessment of the downsides of lockdowns? Their experience seemed to be largely in medical and behavioural science, so how were they qualified to weigh up, for example, the economic downsides and the very human implications of those downsides?”

Join the conversation in the comments section below - just look for the speech bubble icon underneath the first post of the day.

02:44 PM GMT

Pandemic plans designed to deal with swine flu, Inquiry hears

Plans in place before the Covid pandemic hit had been drawn up by people who had just dealt with swine flu, where the mortality rate was “very low”, the Covid Inquiry heard.

Sir Chris said: “It was clearly written by people who had just been through a pandemic in which the mortality was very low - the H1N1 2009 pandemic.

“It wasn’t that they were modelling it just on that, but it clearly didn’t really need to meet the needs of a 1918-style flu pandemic, which in my view, was the kind of model we should need to think about.”

He added: “Of the three big flu pandemics of the 20th century - so 1918, 1957 and 1968 - seemed to me much closer to what we were going to see than 2009 if we saw anything at all.”

02:37 PM GMT

Data issues hampered the UK's pandemic response, Inquiry hears

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

He told the Covid 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.”

02:29 PM GMT

Pandemic plan 'woefully deficient', says Whitty

The plan in place before the Covid pandemic was “woefully deficient” even for a flu pandemic, England’s chief medical officer has said.

Sir Chris Whitty said it was apparent early in the pandemic that the document “wasn’t going to give us any particular help”.

He said: “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 added: “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 large number of useful components within, it wasn’t nothing helpful there.

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

02:23 PM GMT

Hearing resumes

The Inquiry has resumed after a lunch break.

01:11 PM GMT

Johnson 'more focused in a small group'

Boris Johnson tended to be more focused when in a small group, England’s chief medical officer has told the Covid-19 Inquiry.

Inquiry counsel Hugo Keith asked Professor Sir Chris Whitty if a lack of adequate recordings of meetings “contributed to that degree of chaos”.

Sir Chris replied: “A lot of the way by which senior ministers, including the prime minister, came to their position was done informally in conversation.

“And, for example, one of the times where we had the most conversation with the prime minister in a small group - where he tended to be at his most focused - was in the briefing just before we did press conferences.

“That was not not a formal meeting, that was really just working things out.”

01:10 PM GMT

Sir Jonathan Van Tam says he raised the alarm on January 16

The inquiry heard evidence from deputy chief medical officer Prof Sir Jonathan Van Tam, who says he raised on 16 January 2020 concerns that a “significant pandemic” was likely - and was told by Sir Chris that “we needed to wait and monitor developments”.

The statement from Sir Jonathan, read to the inquiry, states: “The date on which I recall first being seriously concerned about the threat that this virus was the 16th of January. By that date it was clear this was a novel coronavirus. It was fairly clear huge human transmission was occurring” raising concern about a “significant so not trivial pandemic”.

Hugo Keith KC said: “And to the best of his recollection your response was to agree that the situation may well escalate but for now we needed instead to wait and monitor developments”.

Sir Chris did not dispute the account, saying he did not think he would have made a different judgment now based on the same information.

“That was my judgement and it is still my judgement” he said, saying there were “various points along the path” later on “where I would, in retrospect, have made different decisions. All I’m saying is that is not one of them,” he said.

01:09 PM GMT

Johnson made decisions in a way 'unique to him'

Former prime minister Boris Johnson made decisions in a way that was “unique to him”, the Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

Inquiry counsel Hugo Keith said there is “clear evidence” that the former prime minister “had a difficulty in reaching clear, consistent positions” with “ample evidence relating to oscillation or backing and veering”.

When asked if he witnessed this, chief medical officer for England Sir Chris Whitty said: “I think that the way that Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him.”

When pushed on this comment, he added: “He (Mr Johnson) has quite a distinct style, but I think lots of other people have got quite distinct styles.”

Sir Chris said he felt his role was not to “make commentaries on individual politicians”.

12:56 PM GMT

Sir Chris says he never said which decisions 'must' be taken

Asked if he ever expressed his personal opinions on political decisions such as lockdowns or circuit breakers, England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the UK Covid-19 public inquiry: “I hope, and I think the evidence from the ministers has said this, that I was, and Sir Patrick was, very careful to be clear and blunt about the public health implications of decisions taken or not taken.

“But not to say ‘therefore you must’ or ‘I think you must’ because that is absolutely a political decision at the end of the day.”

He went on to tell the inquiry: “So there were two things I said right from the beginning, and I still don’t think there’s any reason to doubt them - the first of which is there were there were no good options.

“All the options were very bad, some are a bit worse, and some were very, very bad.

12:50 PM GMT

Sir Chris worried about legal difficulties for scientists

Professor Sir Chris Whitty said he is concerned that scientists who advised the Government during the pandemic could be vulnerable to legal challenges.

Asked whether he had considered the extent to which he and his Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) colleagues could be open to a future legal liability, the chief medical officer said: “Yes. I was not - in my own position of being a Government employee - I was much less concerned.

The chief medical officer is part of the Civil Service.

“But I have always been worried, and I have been for some time, that it is ambiguous at best, where scientists who are either seconded into something or not employed by Government at all but are giving their time in various forms, formal or informal, to what extent are they automatically covered by some form of indemnity against frivolous or indeed actual civil claims?

“That is a worry and I think it is one that should be solvable, in my view.”

12:44 PM GMT

Sir Chris asked about the 'significant difficulties' in collective decision-making

Sir Chris was asked by Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the Inquiry, if it was clear the government “encountered significant difficulties” in reaching collective decisions and whether it was apparent ministers “consistently abided by this degree of oscillation and chaos”.

He replied: “That’s correct but I think it’s a matter of record that many other nations had similar problems, expressed in different ways, in this major, major international crisis”.

12:36 PM GMT

Following the science became a 'millstone round our necks' says Sir Chris

Sir Chris said that ministers’ insistence they were “following the science” became a “millstone round our necks”.

He told the Inquiry: “I mean both, both Sir Patrick and I when it initially happened... thought well this was a good thing, the government is recognising that science is important.

“Very soon we realised it was a millstone round our necks and it didn’t help the government either.”

He added that it blurred the distinction between technical advice and political decisions.

12:28 PM GMT

People should not have changed the facts to fit an agenda, says Sir Chris

In discussions about differences of opinion on actions to combat spread of the virus, Sir Chris said: “What I thought was not legitimate was for people to essentially change the facts to fit their political agenda that they came with and there’s no doubt that there were examples of that; where people essentially ignored facts, twisted facts, in my opinion, that were facts.

“They weren’t model outputs or anything, they were facts of life. Because they were inconvenient to the political position they took; that doesn’t strike me as healthy in the environment of a very major national crisis,” he said.

12:21 PM GMT

Chief scientists tried to 'reflect' what ministers wanted from Sage

Professor Sir Chris Whitty said chief scientists did their best to “reflect” what ministers wanted to participants of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) during the pandemic.

He told the Covid-19 Inquiry: “It wasn’t helpful to say to Sage ‘there’s a considerable debate going on in government and lots people have got different opinions’.

“That wasn’t actually a terribly useful thing to say. It was helpful if we could say ‘well, Government’s strategic aim is X’.”

He added: “The danger was Sage was not in a position to say what Government’s strategic position was until the Government itself had a strategic position.

“And, sometimes, the Government was waiting for Sage to make a strategic position.

“And that potential circularity is something which I think bears some thought.”

12:19 PM GMT

'Bit of a row' over Cummings attending Sage meetings

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.

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.

12:09 PM GMT

The Prime Minister still works 'extremely closely' with Sir Chris Whitty

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 Sir Chris, 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.

11:59 AM GMT

Sir Chris defends Sage membership

Sir Chris has defended the UK’s Sage membership amid criticism that the Government’s primary source of scientific advice lacked a broader outlook.

Responding to suggestions there was a lack of insight into the social impact of measures being introduced, Sir Chris said: “Sage only really advised ministers and only ministers for particular sets of questions.”

He added: He said: “I met regularly, very regularly, with the directors of public health across the entire country, an extraordinarily able and dedicated and vey experienced group. They gave me public health advice.”

11:52 AM GMT

UK “absolutely dependent” on advice from international colleagues during Covid

UK scientists were “absolutely dependent” on advice from international colleagues during Covid, Chris Whitty told the Inquiry.

Sir Chris said he often met with officials from the World Health Organisation, including the director general, as the pandemic progressed.

He told the inquiry his department worked consistently with colleagues around the world and were “absolutely dependent on that” information and cooperation.

11:22 AM GMT

Sir Chris pressed over claims he was a lockdown 'delayer'

Hugo Keith QC, counsel to the inquiry, has pressed Sir Chris hard on the suggestion that he was in favour of delaying the first national lockdown in March 2020, but Sir Chris is deadbatting everything Mr Keith throws at him, writes Associate Editor Gordon Rayner.

On Monday Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser, told the Covid Inquiry that he and Sir Chris had disagreed over the speed with which restrictions on liberty should be introduced, describing him as “a delayer” in his private diary.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Sage advisory committee, had previously claimed there was “palpable tension” between the two men.

But Sir Chris, in the deadpan delivery so familiar from dozens of Covid-era press conferences, has let the air out of that balloon.

Sir Jeremy, he said, “had a book to sell, and that made it more exciting”.

He described his differences with Sir Patrick as small, and likened his warnings about the adverse consequences of lockdown to a surgeon having a duty to explain to a patient the possible risks of surgery even when surgery was the right option for them.

“With the benefit of hindsight, we went too late” with lockdown, he added for good measure.

11:10 AM GMT

It 'would have been wrong' to swing the entire medical profession to Covid, says Sir Chris

Speaking about discussions in early 2020, before the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, Sir Chris said: “I think it is also 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 of Covid - and every one of those deaths is tragic on both sides.”

Sir Chris Whitty giving evidence to Covid Inquiry at Dorland House in London on Tuesday
Sir Chris Whitty giving evidence to Covid Inquiry at Dorland House in London on Tuesday - PA

10:58 AM GMT

Key figures in Covid Inquiry briefed on Simon Case 'private medical informaiton'

Key participants in the Inquiry have been briefed about “private medical information” relating to Simon Case while his evidence has been postponed.

Last month it emerged that Mr Case, the Cabinet Secretary, would be taking time off work because of what was described as a “private medical matter”.

It now appears there could be more delays in his evidence with the Inquiry choosing to provide details of his medical condition to core participants in order to update them on his ability to give evidence.

The solicitor to the Inquiry has written to core participants, who range from government departments to charities and groups representing bereaved families, sharing  “private medical information” relating to Mr Case.

This is “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”.

10:37 AM GMT

Sir Chris: 'Differences were small' between myself and Sir Patrick Vallance

Asked about references in a book by Sir Jeremy Farrar, a scientist, that there was friction and tension between himself and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific advisor, Sir Chris said that Sir Jeremey “had a book to sell” and “actually the differences were extremely small”.

He said: “I did have a stronger concern that the biggest impacts of everything we did, and I was confident we were going to have to do them to be clear but when we started the disadvantages of all the actions, not just for lockdown, but other actions before that, for example, what was initially called cocooning and then shielding, as an example, stopping schooling is another, the biggest impacts of those would be in areas of deprivation”.

10:28 AM GMT

Whitty asked to give advice on 'policy' not 'medicine or science'

Sir Chris said he and his department were frequently asked to give advice on matters which he thought were matters of policy, not medicine or science.

He told the inquiry “We were flooded with requests, many of which, in my view, were actually about policy and we actually tried to avoid those areas.

“So the question really should always be why does a doctor or scientist need to answer this? And if the answer is it’s not obvious, it needs to go to them.

“Quite frequently we would say, this is an area that doesn’t look appropriate for us.”

10:26 AM GMT

Stenographer working from home

Sir Chris Whitty has been asked to slow down when providing his responses so the stenographer for the Inquiry can keep up with proceedings while working remotely.

Working from home was introduced in the UK en masse during the pandemic but it is becoming less common as both bosses and staff become disillusioned with its benefits.

The proportion of people going in five days a week has now overtaken the number working fully remotely for the first time since the pandemic, according to recruiter Hays.

10:09 AM GMT

Inquiry now live

The Covid Inquiry has begun. Sir Chris Whitty has now been sworn in to give evidence to the Inquiry for the second time.

Over the coming hours he will be questioned on how he advised the government as the chief medical officer during the pandemic.

On Monday diary entries by Sir Patrick provided extraordinary insights into his view of Mr Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the decisions taken by politicians as the crisis unfolded.

The inquiry heard how Mr Johnson sometimes struggled to retain scientific information, was “clutching at straws” and at one point queried whether Covid was spreading “because of the great libertarian nation we are”.

Sir Patrick’s diaries also suggested that Mr Sunak, then chancellor, thought it was “okay” to “just let people die”.

10:03 AM GMT

Inquiry due to start

The Covid Inquiry was due to start at 10am and is expected to commence any minute.

Sir Chris Whitty arriving at the Covid Enquiry London 21 November 2023
Sir Chris Whitty arriving at the Covid Enquiry London 21 November 2023 - Heathcliff O'Malley

09:49 AM GMT

Good morning

Welcome to our live coverage of Tuesday’s Covid Inquiry hearings.

Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer and one of the most recognisable figures during the pandemic, is giving evidence for the whole of Tuesday and even into Wednesday.

Follow all the latest developments from the hearings here.

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