'UK was woefully unprepared': What we learned from Chris Whitty at Covid inquiry

Sir Chris Whitty said scientists had warned Boris Johnson in early February that Covid could cause between 100,000-300,000 deaths but a lockdown was imposed 'too late', as Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks reports.

Words by Lewis Denison, Westminster Producer

The UK was "woefully" unprepared for a pandemic before coronavirus arrived in early 2020, the chief medical officer has told the Covid-19 inquiry.

Sir Chris Whitty, who became a household name during the pandemic as one of Boris Johnson's top advisers, also explained that in his view Britain's first lockdown was imposed "too late".

The chief medical officer, who was grilled for over six hours on Tuesday and will appear again on Wednesday, was much more diplomatic in his testimony than others who have given evidence and was reluctant to criticise those who he worked with.

He did comment on Boris Johnson's leadership style but Rishi Sunak - Sir Chris's current boss - came away from Tuesday's testimony unscathed.

Prime Minister Sunak and his former boss Mr Johnson are expected to appear at the inquiry in the next two weeks.

The UK was 'woefully' unprepared for a pandemic and locked down 'too late'

Sir Chris told the inquiry about a pandemic preparedness document which had been drafted before 2020 which was "woefully deficient" even for flu, never mind the much-more deadly coronavirus.

He said he knew after viewing the document that the government was "thin on the ground on plans" looking to mitigate something with such a high mortality rate.

Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance became well known during the pandemic as Boris Johnson's senior advisers. Credit: PA

“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 told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

“So my view was we didn’t have a plan that was going to be useful from a prevention or management point of view."

Sir Chris said it was clear the document was written by people who had just experienced the swine flu pandemic which did not materialise into anything near the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"It was not that it was about flu and this was Covid – that had some important differences – it was about the fact this wasn’t designed, in my view, to meet this particular need at all," he said.

The chief medical adviser accepted that “with the benefit of hindsight” the first lockdown in March 2020 was “a bit too late” and opened up about slow decision-making in government.

“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.”

Comparing the UK's ability to tackle the virus to that of similar economies, Sir Chris suggested Britain was inadequate.

Asked about an absence of a test, trace and isolate system in the UK at the beginning of 2020, he said South Korea had "invested in public health infrastructure" and Germany "used their industrial base".

Commenting on the NHS, he said "you can't just switch this on" without investment.

Ministers 'did not understand' exponential growth

Sir Chris explained that Cabinet did realise the enormity of the impending pandemic in February 2020 but many did not understand the concept of exponential growth of cases.

"We really did not find [it] easy to get across...the extraordinary power of exponential growth to get you from small numbers to large numbers very quickly," he said.

The scientist said he "found this surprising given that so many people in both politics and in the official system are trained in economics".

“People just don’t get that… I think they got it a bit more now because of having seen it. But certainly prior to this pandemic, I think people just didn’t understand how quickly you move from ‘it’s actually very small numbers to it’s actually very large numbers and doubling every few days’.”

He added: "Do I think that most people around the table fully grasped what would happen if they started to run exponentially? I suspect the answer to that is no, but I wouldn’t want to interpret their thoughts.”

Sir Chris's appearance at the inquiry followed that of former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who often appeared alongside the chief medical officer (CMO) at the regular coronavirus press conferences.

Sir Patrick explained his "real struggle" in getting the ex-PM to understand science.

On Monday it was shown that Sir Patrick vented, in his private diaries which were shown to the inquiry, about the "awful" experience of watching the then-prime minister read statistics.

One diary entry, shown to the inquiry on Monday, from May 4 2020 said: “Late afternoon meeting with the PM on schools. My God, this is complicated. Models will not provide the answer. PM is clearly bamboozled."

Others, also written in May 2020, said: “PM asking whether we’ve overdone it on the lethality of this disease. He swings between optimism, pessimism, and then this.

“PM still confused on different types of test. He holds us in his head for a session and then it goes.”

Boris Johnson's 'unique' leadership style

Sir Chris described Mr Johnson's leadership style as "unique to him" when asked at the inquiry about testimony from previous witnesses who had given evidence suggesting he “had a difficulty in reaching clear, consistent positions” and was prone to “oscillation or backing and veering”.

The professor was reluctant to criticise the ex-PM, and, when asked to elaborate on Mr Johnson, said: “He (Mr Johnson) has quite a distinct style, but I think lots of other people have got quite distinct styles.”

He said he felt his role was not to “make commentaries on individual politicians”, however earlier in his testimony did admit Number 10 was “quite often chaotic” under Mr Johnson's leadership.

Sir Patrick on Monday also criticised a "lack of leadership" under Mr Johnson.

He described Cabinet ministers as “meek as mice” and accused them of an “abrogation of responsibility” for not imposing recommended restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the autumn of 2020.

Minister comments on 'following the science' were a 'millstone' around necks of advisers

Sir Chris and Sir Patrick have both commented on their displeasure at minister's repeatedly insisting they had been "following the science".

CMO Whitty said: “Both (Sir) Patrick (Vallance) and I, when it initially happened – remembering that our job was to get science into government – thought ‘oh this is a good thing, government is recognising that science is important’.

Sir Patrick Vallance, formerly the government's chief scientific adviser, and chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty. Credit: No10

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

“Because it blurred the distinction between the very firm, clear demarcation that must and did exist between technical advice and political decision for which people are then answerable in the ballot box and in Parliament.”

Sir Patrick, speaking on Monday, said he welcomed the use of the phrase as it showed ministers were “listening to us” which “is not always the case in government”.

But he “pretty quickly” changed his mind due to it being widely interpreted as ministers “slavishly” following science, when science itself is a “moving body of knowledge”.

When asked whether he asked ministers to refrain from using the mantra, Sir Patrick said he could not remember, but added: “They knew that this was damaging.

“At one point it did get softened to ‘we are being informed by’… and I think the prime minister actually says that at some point.”

Revelations about Rishi Sunak from Monday

Sir Patrick's testimony was particularly damaging for Prime Minister Sunak, shining a light on his attitude towards scientists and their advice during the pandemic.

Mr Sunak, who was chancellor during the pandemic, reportedly did not consult scientific advisers on the risks of the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme, despite its impact being "obvious".

It was also suggested he "thought it was OK to just let people die" instead of imposing a second lockdown, according to a diary entry written by Sir Patrick, noting what former Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings had said about Mr Sunak.

Sir Patrick said he only learned about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme - which was blamed for boosting the spread of coronavirus - at the same time as the public.

Mr Sunak has said in his written submission to the inquiry that he does not recall any pushback on the policy, but Sir Patrick said his advice would have been "very clear" had he been asked.

Giving evidence to the probe, Sir Patrick said: “We didn’t see it before it was announced and I think others in the Cabinet Office also said they didn’t see it before it was formulated as policy. So we weren’t involved in the run up to it.”