England’s chief medical officer: 'No delay' in government's coronavirus response

Credit: PA

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has insisted there was no huge delay in the government taking action on coronavirus as he launched a staunch defence of his actions over the pandemic

In a heated exchange with former health secretary and chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee Jeremy Hunt, Professor Chris Whitty told MPs that widespread community testing earlier on in the outbreak required "an infrastructure we did not have".

Prof Whitty blamed "incredibly limited testing capacity" and previous failure to build up the UK's health infrastructure for why a test, trace and isolate system was not modelled ahead of the pandemic.

Sir Patrick Vallance, Boris Johnson and Professor Chris Whitty. Credit: PA Video/PA

Lead figures in the government's response team are appearing before the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee on Tuesday to give evidence about the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked by Mr Hunt if he was "content" the government followed his advice on staging different elements of the lockdown, Prof Whitty said:

"Ministers at the time, who were put in an incredibly difficult position, in my view, followed the advice given by Sage, which are clearly signposted through the minutes of Sage".

He continued: "With a delay that was no more than you would reasonably expect for what are really very difficult things to operationalise and decide."

Boris Johnson has been working closely with Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance from Sage Credit: PA

Also speaking before the Committee, Sage expert and Wellcome Trust director Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar said that he regrets the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) was not more "blunt" with its advice.

The Sage expert warned that the world will be living with Covid-19 for "many years to come" and dismissed Boris Johnson's pledge of things returning to normal by Christmas.

Describing January and February as the “absolute critical” two months, Prof Sir Jeremy Farrar said that the UK was “slow” to implement measures such as increased testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers.

“I think the lessons that Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, had learned from previous epidemics were well implemented, and they acted quicker,” he told the committee.

Prof Farrar added: "The response to a pandemic has to be faster than the pandemic itself, otherwise you get behind the curve."

It comes as new figures published by the ONS show that 51,096 deaths involving coronavirus had occurred in England and Wales up to July 10, and had been registered by July 18.

Figures published last week by the National Records for Scotland showed that 4,187 deaths involving Covid-19 had been registered in Scotland up to July 12.

While 844 deaths had occurred in Northern Ireland up to July 10 (and had been registered up to July 15) according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

Together the figures suggest that so far 56,127 deaths have been registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, including suspected cases.

Warning against complacency during the summer months, Professor Farrar said June, July and August were a “crucial phase” to prevent a second wave of Covid-19.

Just over 56,400 deaths involving Covid-19 have now been registered in the UK. Credit: ITV Wales

He told the committee: “If we have any sense of complacency of ‘this is behind us’, then we will undoubtedly have a second wave, and we could easily be in the same situation again."

Francis Crick Institute director Sir Paul Nurse told the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee there had been “pass the parcel” during the coronavirus crisis.

Sir Paul told MPs: “My experience in talking to advisers and also politicians is that I have never found it too easy to find out who is actually responsible for the different parts of the strategy, and for that matter the tactics that are being put in place."

A coronavirus testing kit. Credit: PA

The Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee heard that research by the institute found “up to 45%” of healthcare workers were infected at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“My colleagues in the Crick contacted Downing Street in March, wrote to minister (Matt) Hancock in April, emphasising two main things.

“The importance of regular, systematic testing of all healthcare workers, including not only frontline doctors and nurses, support staff, ambulance drivers, other healthcare providers such as the care homes, GP surgeries, community nurses and the like. And these all needed to be tested.

“And they were infecting their colleagues, they were infecting patients, yet they weren’t been tested systematically,” Sir Paul told MPs.

Professor Sir John Bell, of the University of Oxford, told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee that one of the UK’s biggest failures was not being on the “front foot” in preparation for a pandemic, but praised the discovery of new therapies and the hunt for a vaccine.

Many coronavirus patients in intensive care require ventilator support to breathe Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

Asked about the biggest failures during the pandemic, he told MPs:

"The fact that we were asleep to the concept that we were going to have a pandemic, I think, shame on us.

"Since the year 2000 we’ve had eight close calls of emerging infectious diseases, any one of which could have swept the globe as a pandemic."

Prof Bell said a “central issue” to a lack of testing in hospitals was due to concerns over having to send staff home if they tested positive.

He told MPs: “As time went on, there still wasn’t a real push to test healthcare workers and indeed, all patients in the hospital."