Covid Inquiry LIVE: Sir Chris Whitty says UK waited 'too long' to impose first lockdown

Covid Inquiry LIVE: Sir Chris Whitty says UK waited 'too long' to impose first lockdown

Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty has told the Covid inquiry that the UK was "a bit too late" in imposing the first national lockdown in March 2020.

Sir Chris, who became one of the most recognisable figures in the country during the pandemic, is giving evidence to the inquiry on the Government's handling of the pandemic.

His evidence is expected to last for the whole of Tuesday and could even extend into Wednesday.

It comes a day after evidence from former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, a close colleague who frequently appeared alongside him at coronavirus-era press conferences.

Diary entries by Sir Patrick have so far offered extraordinary insights into his view of Mr Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the decisions taken by politicians as the crisis unfolded.

Lady Hallett’s inquiry heard on Monday that Mr Johnson was “bamboozled” by the graphs and data presented to him during the pandemic and was sometimes a “broken” man.

The inquiry also heard about a diary note Sir Patrick made on October. 25, 2020, about a meeting involving Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak.

The diary entry shown to the inquiry recorded how Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most senior adviser during the pandemic, had relayed to Sir Patrick what he said he had heard at the meeting.

He quoted Mr Cummings in his diary as saying: “Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay. This all feels like a complete lack of leadership.”

Follow latest updates below...

Live coverage ends

17:20 , Miriam Burrell

Our live coverage of the Covid Inquiry has finished for today.


Sir Chris Whitty finishes giving evidence

16:45 , Miriam Burrell

Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty has finished giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry for today.

A lot of 'rather fanciful discussion', Whitty says

16:36 , Miriam Burrell

Professor Sir Chris Whitty was asked about the early 2020 debates around “flattening the curve” of cases “rather than focusing on bringing R (the reproduction number of cases) below one”.

England’s chief medical officer said: “My view was that 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 if I am blunt, which led to quite a confused public debate.

“That applied a number of things, herd immunity was one, there are a number of other ones.

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

Cabinet 'acknowledged substantial threat' in February 2020

16:29 , Miriam Burrell

England’s chief medical officer said Cabinet recognised that the UK was facing a threat at a meeting in February 2020 but many did not understand the concept of exponential growth of cases.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that it was “extremely rare” that the CMO was invited to a Cabinet meeting which “reflects the fact that the Government was acknowledging that this was a substantial threat”.

“There was quite a recognition that there was a significant threat,” he said. “If I were listening to this in Cabinet, I would be concerned.

“I think that one of the things that, however, we really did not find easy to get across – and I found this 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.

He added: “The fact that at this point, they were devoting a sufficient amount of Cabinet to this particular issue, I think does mean that at a certain level, this has lodged as a major issue for government because it was quite a busy political period."

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

16:03 , Miriam Burrell

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

The chief medical officer said the risk of the virus spreading at outdoor events was small and, in retrospect, he didn't disagree with the decision to let events continue.

But he admitted decision makers were not "paying enough attention to the message this was sending".

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."

People didn't understand 'extraordinary power of exponential growth'

15:52 , Miriam Burrell

Sir Chris Witty has claimed scientists "did not find it easy" to educate people on "the extraordinary power of exponential growth" of the virus.

"People just don't get that," he told the Covid Inquiry.

He said people, including politicians, did not understand case numbers could "double every few days and that can be quite quick" and they needed to act in a matter of urgency.

Government ‘didn’t take pandemic threat as seriously as potential terrorist attack’

15:29 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris Whitty is asked how the Government could have responded with more urgency to the threat of the pandemic.

He suggests that a change in approach from No10, recognising the scale of the public health threat posed by pandemics, is needed.

"Do people in the security apparatus in No10 and other areas view the work done by the UKHSA with the same degree of interest and importance as they would do – rightly – MI5? My personal view is they don’t.

"We’re talking about something that is clearly going to have an impact across the whole of government as well as the economy. There is an argument that we should put them on equal footing."

Scientists 'believed border measures would be ineffective' at stopping spread

15:12 , Daniel Keane

Hugo Keith KC is now asking Sir Chris about how scientists evaluated the possible impact of border measures on stopping the spread of the virus.

Minutes shown to the inquiry from a SAGE meeting on January 28, 2020 show that the group felt reducing travel would not halt transmission.

Sir Chris says that he believed that stopping travel and closing the borders would have a “very minimal effect”.

He is also shown a SAGE document from January 2020 which says there is evidence of human-to-human transmission.

“I was confident that there was at least some sustained transmission at this time,” he says.

Pace of ministers' decision making slowed down response, says Whitty

14:54 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris Whitty says that the pace of decision making by ministers meant that the UK was "slower" to act against Covid "than we should have been".

But he claims this was an issue with 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 – either direct, i.e. they cost a lot, or on the economy.

“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.”

UK was 'thin on the ground on plans'

14:36 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris says that the UK was "thin on the ground" on plans for how to deal with the pandemic in January 2020.

“That in itself would not have been an issue if we’d had large numbers of capabilities because I think in all emergencies, the key thing is capability.

"Capabilities trump plans every single time and it’s the lack of capability, which is the bigger problem in my view.”

But Sir Chris goes on to say that, if the UK had had a plan in advance, it "would almost certainly have been the wrong plan".

It would potentially have "slowed us down because we would have spend ages arguing if this was the right plan and adapting the plan", he added.

Existing pandemic plan was 'not helpful' for response to Covid, says Whitty

14:12 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris Whitty has resumed his evidence to the inquiry.

Hugo Keith KC asks what plans were in place for a pandemic in the weeks before Covid struck.

Sir Chris says there had been an "erosion of public health facilities" over a long period of time and that the flu pandemic plan was "not helpful" for responding to Covid.

"This wasn't designed in my view to meet this particular need at all. It was written by people who had been through the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009, where mortality was very low."

Whitty defends lack of response to imminent warning of pandemic

13:50 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris Whitty has defended his response to a warning in January 2020 from the then-deputy chief medical officer that a pandemic was imminent.

The Covid-19 Inquiry heard Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam raised concerns with Sir Chris that it was “fairly clear” human-to-human transmission of a virus was occurring and would be a significant problem.

When asked by counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC whether he should have “raised a greater alarm” at the time, Sir Chris said: “So Jonathan, and I think he would agree with this, is quite instinctive in some of these decisions – very often, rightly.

“He is a very able epidemiologist and thinker in this area, but if I had said to him, ‘OK, what is the evidence on which this is going to be a pandemic…?’ he would have said ‘it just feels like that to me’.

“That is quite a narrow basis on which to make quite big decisions.”

Sir Chris later added: “I don’t see evidence that this is the system not working as it should at this point because it is not clear to me an alternative path would have led to a better outcome on January 16.”

The inquiry has taken a break for lunch

13:21 , Jordan King

Sir Chris will continue giving evidence at 2pm so stay with us.

Boris Johnson's decision making process was 'unique to him', says Whitty

12:54 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris is asked for his opinion on Boris Johnson and his ability to make decisions, following criticism of the former Prime Minister.

He replies: "I think the way Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him. He has a distinct style, but lots of people have styles. I don't want to make comments on individual politicians."

Sir Chris declines to comment on Mr Johnson's personality, insisting it would not be appropriate for a civil servant to do so.

Asked whether there was "oscillation and chaos" in Government, he says: "It's a matter of record that many other nations had similar problems with that, expressed in different ways."

Political commentators 'cherry picked' science, says Whitty

12:44 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris is asked whether he felt Government ministers and commentators had "cherry picked" science to suit a political agenda.

He replies: "Were there meetings where I thought that it was convenient to one or two people that I and Sir Patrick and weren't there ? Yes. The ministers could have insisted we were there and they didn't always. Neither would I have felt it appropriate to insist there was an economic adviser there."

Pressed on whether he felt ministers had manipulated his advice, he says: "That didn't apply to any decision makers in Government, including the PM or the Chancellor. But there were some people who chose the science they wanted to hear.

"There were political commentators whose view of science started with 'what is my political position' and then derived from that. In terms of the decision makers in the Cabinet, my view is they were not intending to cherry pick."

Whitty criticises use of phrase 'following the science' by ministers

12:39 , Daniel Keane

Hugo Keith KC asks whether the phrase "following the science", frequently used by ministers in defence of their Covid policies, was helpful.

Sir Chris replies: "Initially, Sir Patrick and I thought it was good that the Government was recognising the importance of the science, but very soon we realised it was a millstone around our necks and didn't help ministers either. It blurred the distinction between technical advice and decision making."

He adds that the Government had "no good options" for how to tackle Covid.

"All of them were very bad and some were worse. The second point was that this was going to go on for a long time. Whatever decision you made, you had to be prepared to see it through for months and years. This took a while for people in Government to internalise."

Whitty defends use of Covid modelling

12:21 , Daniel Keane

Hugo Keith KC asks whether the UK was "overreliant" on future modelling of deaths and case numbers in early 2020.

Sir Chris said that models "were not meant to be a prediction of the future" but were often interpreted that way by the public.

He said that modellers were initially working with "very sparse data" that had to be "integrated from lots of different areas".

"The point about these models was they helped to explore and test some policy options - they were not predictions of the future, and I think this was where some of the problems arose."

PM 'continues to work extremely closely' with Chris Whitty, says No10

12:08 , Daniel Keane

Some reaction just in from No10 to Sir Chris' evidence.

A spokesperson for Rishi Sunak said that the PM "continues to work extremely closely" with the CMO after his evidence on Tuesday morning.

“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.”

Cummings' attendance at SAGE meetings caused 'quite a row', says Whitty

12:02 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris is asked about claims by Dominic Cummings that minutes from SAGE meetings did not accurately reflect certain views, which eventually led to Cabinet ministers attending SAGE meetings.

Reports at the time suggested that Mr Cummings had sometimes inappropriately sought to influence what was meant to be an impartial scientific process.

Sir Chris said of the reports: "Cummings felt it would have been helpful for ministers themselves to listen to the debate. When it was known that Mr Cummings himself came to SAGE, this caused quite a row.

"I thought it was perfectly sensible that one of the most senior advisers to the PM could listen in on SAGE. It struck me as a sensible thing to do. What wouldn't be sensible is if they tried to bias the answer that was given, that would be extremely unacceptable. But that isn't what happened."

'Failure of imagination' caused scientists not to contemplate possibility of lockdown, says Whitty

11:52 , Daniel Keane

The inquiry has now resumed.

In his witness statement to the inquiry, Sir Chris writes that the "absence of contemplation" of a lockdown by scientists in early 2020 represented a "failure of imagination by a group of scientists who understood the nature of epidemics and their history".

Asked about the passage, Sir Chris says that 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.

What have we learned so far?

11:48 , Daniel Keane

- Sir Chris said that with "the benefit of hindsight” the first lockdown in March 2020 was “a bit too late”

- He refuted claims of "friction" between him and Sir Patrick Vallance and whether they disagreed about when to impose Covid restrictions

- He defended accusations that he warned the Government against "overreacting" to Covid

- Sir Chris said he was clear in his advice to ministers in mid-March 2020 that the country would be in "deep trouble" without intervention

Inquiry takes short break

11:30 , Daniel Keane

The inquiry has paused for a short break, but will resume at 11.40am.

SAGE eventually became too large to hold debates, Whitty says

11:29 , Daniel Keane

Hugo Keith KC asks about the role of SAGE, and whether the group was diverse enough in its range of disciplines to advise ministers effectively.

Sir Chris says that SAGE was initially too small, before becoming too large to have an effective debate.

But he claims that there was "quite a wide range of people at different points", despite a lack of economic experts in the group.

Whitty: It would have been wrong to swing whole of NHS to Covid in early 2020

11:17 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris is questioned on how he approached the issue of Covid with the medical profession in early 2020.

Hugo Keith KC draws attention to a speech given by Sir Chris to the Royal College of Physicians in February that year, in which he said "yes we've got to act, but this could go either way".

The CMO says that it would have been "wrong" to swing the entirety of the medical profession to Covid-19 in early 2020.

“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.”

He added: “Even at the height of the pandemic more people died of causes not Covid than died of Covid... Every one of those deaths is tragic on both of those sides.”

Whitty rejects report that scientific advice was 'too cautious'


Sir Chris is asked whether advice given to ministers was "too cautious" and whether this meant the Government's responses were "behind the curve".

Hugo Keith KC questions whether it would have been better for scientists to advise that ministers "go early and go hard" with measures, as some other countries did.

Sir Chris replies that he also had to consider the "significant cost" of acting, including the impact of lockdown on loneliness and mental health.

I was clear that lockdown was 'only option' to avoid mass deaths in March 2020, says Whitty

10:46 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris is asked about email correspondence in March 2020, prior to the lockdown, in which he warned against "overreacting" to Covid by imposing restrictions.

Boris Johnson did not impose a lockdown until March 23.

He says: "My advice was the advice of SAGE, that without action we were going to be in trouble. They had been saying that since March 16.

"It is also important that the downsides of the advice should be laid out. It does not mean that you do not think that the action should occur. By the time we got to March 23, the options available to ministers were very narrow unless they wanted to see heavy loss of life."

He adds: "I reject the characterisation of this as overreaction, as that implies the reaction should not happen... Sir Patrick was saying exactly that, and the advice we gave was identical."

Whitty: We went too late on first wave

10:35 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris says that with "the benefit of hindsight” the first lockdown in March 2020 was “a bit too late”.

“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.”

He is also asked about claims of "friction" between him and Sir Patrick Vallance and whether they disagreed about when to impose Covid restrictions.

The claims were outlined in testimony given by Sir Patrick and a book authored by SGE scientist Sir Jeremy Farrar.

He replies: "Sir Jeremy is a good friend and colleague had a book to sell, and that made it more exciting. My own view is that the differences in our views were extremely small.

"The main one was that, as part of my role within SAGE, I thought I should raise the very significant problems caused in areas of deprivation from the action we were taking. That was an appropriate thing to do.

"Inevitably it meant we had different starting points, but inevitably we arrived at a common position through SAGE."

Whitty: We were dependent on overseas information at early stage of pandemic

10:26 , Daniel Keane

Sir Chris is asked whether the UK failed to seek the opinion of overseas experts.

He replies: "We were absolutely dependent on that. There were bilateral meetings I had with experts, and meetings with groups convened by the World Health Organisation.

"There were also international publications, which would be fed in us. We were getting information internationally from multiple routes."

Sir Chris said that health officials in the UK initially relied on Chinese data and information to assess the severity of the virus in early 2020.

Proceedings underway

10:13 , Daniel Keane

Professor Sir Chris Whitty has taken his seat and is now giving evidence to the inquiry.

You can watch footage of his testimony via the YouTube link on this page.

Lead Counsel to the Inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, begins by listing Sir Chris' various public health posts and asking him about the nature of each role.

Who is Chris Whitty and why is his appearance important?

09:57 , Daniel Keane

Professor Sir Chris Whitty is the chief medical officer for England, a role he has served in since 2019.

He is responsible for advising ministers on public health issues, including infectious diseases, vaccination and health inequalities.

The CMO is a civil service role that reports to the permanent secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). However, they have a significant public profile and occasionally criticise Government policy.

Sir Chris is an epidemiologist and trained specialist in tropical diseases. He has also worked as a researcher and doctor in Africa and Asia.

Before becoming CMO, he worked as Professor of Public and International Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). He is also a practising NHS consultant doctor at University College London Hospitals (UCLH).

Sir Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, will give evidence to the inquiry (PA Archive)
Sir Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, will give evidence to the inquiry (PA Archive)

What did we learn from Sir Patrick Vallance's testimony?

09:35 , Daniel Keane

Sir Patrick Vallance worked as the Government's chief scientific adviser throughout the pandemic.

His testimony and diary entries on Monday revealed a string of extraordinary insights about the handling of the pandemic:

- Boris Johnson was “bamboozled” by the graphs and data presented to him during the pandemic and was sometimes a “broken” man

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

- Mr Sunak was also overheard saying that the Government should focus on handling its scientific advisers rather than the spread of Covid-19

- It is "highly likely" that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was responsible for a surge in infections deaths, Sir Patrick said


09:15 , Daniel Keane

Good morning and welcome to our live coverage of the Covid inquiry.

England's chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty will give evidence to the inquiry shortly in a highly anticipated appearance. He is expected to appear before the inquiry at 10am.

It follows testimony from chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance on Monday, which contained a number of bombshell revelations about the inner workings of Government during the pandemic.