Where’s Whitty? Calls for CMO to weigh in on plan to scrap COVID laws by March

Britain's Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty attends a press conference for the latest Covid-19 update in the Downing Street briefing room in central London on December 8, 2021. - The UK government is reintroducing Covid-19 restrictions due to the Omicron variant. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / various sources / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Chris Whitty has so far not commented on the decision to scrap all COVID restrictions at the end of February. (Getty)

A Sage member has called on the government’s leading scientific advisers to comment on Boris Johnson's decision to lift the final coronavirus restrictions in England within weeks.

England’s chief medical officer Sir Prof Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and outgoing deputy chief medical officer Sir Prof Jonathan Van-Tam have so far not spoken out publicly about the prime minister’s announcement.

Susan Michie, a member of Sage and Independent Sage, questioned Prof Whitty’s lack of statement, tweeting: “Is absence the appropriate response for a chief medical officer in the current circumstances?”

On Wednesday, the PM announced his intention to scrap remaining domestic COVID rules later this month, as long as “encouraging trends” in the data continue.

Among the rules set to go are the ability for councils to order the closure of premises where the virus could be spreading, as well as the legal duty to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus.

The PM said he will present his plan for “living with COVID” when parliament returns from a short recess on 21 February, with an aim of lifting the requirement to self-isolate within days of that.

The move will see COVID treated in a similar way to other infectious diseases such as flu, with people encouraged to stay at home if they were ill.

Watch: Johnson signals early end to COVID self-isolation laws

However, some scientists and campaigners raised fears about the impact the change could have on clinically vulnerable groups.

Phillip Anderson, head of policy at the MS Society, said ending the restrictions will “heap yet more worry and confusion on thousands of immunocompromised people”.

James Taylor from disability equality charity Scope, added: “Scrapping self-isolation will mean that some disabled people will be feeling very anxious and could potentially be placed in situations that could prove deadly.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 14: Britain's Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (L), Britain's Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance (C) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) walk towards the door of number 9, Downing Street ahead of a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room on September 14, 2021 in London, England. The prime minister's briefing was preceded by his health secretary's appearance before the House of Commons, in which he laid out the country's strategies for managing the pandemic through the autumn and winter. (Photo by Richard Pohle - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Chief medical officer Sir Prof Chris Whitty, left, and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, centre, have yet to say what they think of the scrapping of COVID rules in England. (Getty)

The government’s plan is expected to set out further information for vulnerable groups but officials also believe “cutting edge treatments” will also mitigate some of the risks.

Sage member John Edmunds said there were “dangers” in lifting restrictions and told ITV’s Peston on Wednesday that Sage had “not discussed” the decision to remove the final restrictions a month early.

However, Edmunds conceded that Johnson was “right” to say that we are at the end of the pandemic, adding: “I think we are just about through the pandemic phase.”

Christina Pagel, a member of Independent Sage, said that dropping isolation “makes work and socialising riskier”.

She said the decision was “not science based”, adding: “Basically govt plans that we will all get COVID several times – like a cold but with a much more dangerous disease.”

Pagel also tweeted that it was “quite telling that we've not heard anything from Chris Whitty or Patrick Vallance for weeks and weeks”.

Professor Tim Spector, who runs the Zoe app COVID study at King’s College London, said Johnson’s announcement was “an act of irresponsibility”.

He said hospital admissions and deaths are down but the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Zoe data show the UK is still at more than 200,000 cases a day “and we’re still close to where we were on 1 January and that peak we had”.

COVID cases in the UK continue to drop. (PA)
COVID cases in the UK continue to drop. (PA)

Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine in Oxford, supported the PM’s announcement, telling Talk Radio on Thursday morning: "Eight weeks ago modellers were producing scenarios saying it would be a very bad winter.

“Actually the exact opposite happened. In reality viruses will take care of themselves."

The scrapping of COVID rules in England follows other European countries – including Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Czech Republic – of putting an end to restrictions in an effort to “live with” the disease.

Figures published on Wednesday show COVID infection levels have risen in three of the four UK nations, with only Wales showing a fall.