Tory MPs take potshots at 'unelected' Chris Whitty over stark COVID advice

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty at a press conference in London's Downing Street after ministers met to consider imposing new restrictions in response to rising cases and the spread of the Omicron variant. Picture date: Wednesday December 8, 2021.
Professor Chris Whitty. (PA)

Conservative MPs have sparked condemnation after saying England’s chief medical officer should not give people advice about their social plans because he is not elected.

Joy Morrissey criticised Professor Chris Whitty, England's most senior doctor, for urging people to prioritise their social interactions in order to stem the spread of the Omicron variant.

The MP for Beaconsfield, who deleted her own tweet shortly after posting it, said: “Perhaps the unelected COVID public health spokesperson should defer to what our ELECTED Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister have decided.

“I know it’s difficult to remember but that’s how democracy works. This is not a public health socialist state.”

At an No 10 press briefing on Wednesday, Prof Whitty urged the public to “prioritise what matters to them” when considering attending parties and other events during the Christmas period.

He told people “don’t mix with people you don’t have to” at events that are not among the most important to them.

Morrissey since deleted the tweet.
Morrissey since deleted the tweet.

He added: “I don’t think you need to be a doctor to think that, I think that’s what most people are very sensibly calculating and that seems to me a sensible approach.”

The advice was in contrast to previous guidance from the prime minister, who has previously said that people should feel comfortable attending Christmas parties.

There is no official government guidance not to attend parties.

However, the PM also struck a more cautious tone yesterday, saying: “I agree totally with Chris about the response we’re already seeing from everybody, our general instinct to be more cautious.

Watch: All you need to know from the Government's coronavirus briefing

In parliament on Wednesday, Conservative former health minister Steve Brine said Prof Whitty had “put this country, certainly hospitality… into effective lockdown”.

Brine said advisers are “running the show” and asked for extra Treasury support to assist businesses.

Morrissey posted a watered-down critique of Prof Whitty on Twitter later, saying she was "increasingly concerned at public health pronouncements made in the media that already seem to exceed or contradict decisions made by our elected representatives". She added: "Expert advice is important but decisions must be made by those we elect, who are democratically accountable."

The comments have sparked a significant backlash. Labour's Wes Streeting said: “It is outrageous to see a government PPS [parliamentary private secretary] attacking the chief medical officer in this way.

"She should apologise and withdraw this immediately. Chris Whitty has never disputed where policy is made – he makes this point repeatedly.”

Rachael Clarke, a palliative care doctor, tweeted: "You may not *like* what the science leads public health experts to recommend. You may even think it’s just fine to attack [England's chief medical officer] in the middle of a global pandemic. But surely you’re not actually suggesting he can’t offer a public opinion?"

Conservative party leader Theresa May with Ealing Central and Acton Conservative Candidate Joy Morrissey (left) on the General Election campaign trail in Ealing, west London. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Joy Morrissey pictured in 2017. (Getty Images)

Labour MP Karl Turner added: "Dishonest Johnson has completely lost the trust of the British public. Most would trust [Chris Whitty] over liar Johnson any day".

Asked about the criticism while giving evidence about the pandemic to MPs, Prof Whitty said: "This is advice that I think any CMO would have given and I don’t think any minister is feeling I’m treading on their toes on this one."

The outbursts reflect a growing discontent among many Tory MPs that Boris Johnson is going too far with COVID restrictions, despite warnings that a "tidal wave" of Omicron cases could overwhelm the NHS in the coming weeks.

The mutiny puts the PM in a difficult position if experts advise him that more restrictions are needed, as he may struggle to persuade swathes of his party to support the move.

On Tuesday, Johnson suffered a humiliating rebellion from his own MPs over plans to introduce COVID passes for entry into nightclubs and mass events in England.

David Nabarro, special envoy for the World Health Organization, said on Wednesday the growth of Omicron was “an emergency situation for the British health service".

"It will get extremely serious within the next two weeks, perhaps quicker," Nabarro told Sky News. "I do hope that everybody who was watching that press conference realised just how serious the situation is in the UK.

“I've been watching this pandemic and working on it since January 2020 and I have never been more concerned than I am tonight, not just about the U.K. but about the world.”

Watch: Daily politics briefing – 16 December