UK Covid Inquiry: Sir Frank Atherton accepts his face coverings advice 'weakened public messaging'

Sr Frank Atherton was the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for Wales throughout the pandemic Credit: UK Covid Inquiry

The Welsh Government's decision not to make it a requirement for people to wear face coverings in the first months of the pandemic was "confusing to the public", the Chief Medical Officer has accepted.

Sir Frank Atherton, who was CMO throughout the pandemic, has been giving evidence at the UK Covid Inquiry hearings in Cardiff on Monday (4 March).

The Welsh Government did not introduce the mandatory wearing of a cloth face covering until 9 June 2020, nearly a month after guidelines had been introduced in England.

The day after the decision was taken in England, Sir Frank published a statement saying he thought it should be a matter of personal choice, rather than a rule.

In his evidence to the UK Covid inquiry, Sir Frank said his advice was based on three areas of concern. Firstly, he said he was concerned about the stock of PPE, given that the priority was to ensure hospital and care staff had access to face coverings.

Secondly, he thought wearing of face coverings would promote “risky behaviours” and thirdly his concern was that the face coverings being used generally in the UK did not meet World Health Organisation standards, and therefore would have little material impact on reducing the spread of the virus.

Wearing of PPE and face coverings came into force in Wales after England in June 2020. Credit: PA Images

The inquiry was shown a page of Sir Frank's notepad from 7 June 2020 in which he wrote "Is there sufficient evidence to support mandatory use?"

He told the inquiry his notepad was used to help him order his thoughts before he briefed ministers, and was just a very informal means of record keeping.

“Although I couldn't see a good argument for mandating, on a public health basis, the use of face coverings as opposed to recommending, I was clear with ministers that there was a political choice to be made", Sir Frank told the inquiry.

“It was extremely difficult", he continued.

"I felt as though I was putting ministers in quite a difficult position because I was taking a slightly different position to my other CMO colleagues [in England and Scotland] on this one.

"It became confusing to the public that we were not aligned and that we were doing slightly different on face coverings so it was me trying to make sure that ministers understood that this was their decision.

"But my advice was that the evidence [for mandating face coverings] was not robust.”

Asked by the Counsel to the Inquiry, "Do you think taking this stance weakened public messaging?

"Yes… I think for all the time and energy we spent on face coverings, it would have been a better to align.”

The Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group, which has Core Participant Status in Module 2b of the UK Covid Inquiry, criticised the lack of time made available to question Sir Frank Atherton in this module.

The campaign group wrote on X (formerly Twitter): "Not even one hour of questioning for the Chief Medical Officer for Wales...[Professor Sir Chris] Whitty, CMO for England and the UK had an entire day.

"This barely touched the sides. This can't be right", their post said.

The group repeated its call for the Welsh specific Covid-19 Inquiry, something the Welsh Government has repeatedly rejected, saying scrutiny of interconnected-governmental decisions can only be done on the UK-wide level.

Earlier in his evidence on Monday, Sir Frank Atherton said he had "pretty much lost control" of his emails in the early weeks of the pandemic when cases began to be identified in the UK.

"I did feel like a bit of an outlier", he told the inquiry in relation to the amount of administrative support he was getting in his role compared to the CMOs of the other UK nations.

Social distancing were part of the measures introduced to reduce the spread of the virus. Credit: PA Images

Sir Frank said that due to the work by the Welsh Government going into responding to the floods in Wales in February 2020, he was not able to be given more resources in public health to respond to the growing threat from the virus.

The CMO told the inquiry that the pandemic was "managed too long as a purely health issue” partly, he said, because of the floods and the impacts of Brexit.

By the middle of February, Sir Frank said he started to feel concerned that it was seen as a cross government issue.

Asked if he thought any action prior to the 23 March 2020 could have avoided the need for a full national lockdown, he said no.

Later in his evidence, Sir Frank was asked by the barrister for the Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group about the policy of discharging hospital patients with symptoms of Covid into care homes without a test being required.

Asked by Kirsten Heaven KC how he satisfied himself that vulnerable people in care homes were going to be protected, Sir Frank said the numbers of people leaving hospital for care homes were "not large numbers" and there was “no safer alternative” to the policy.

"The common view was that care homes ought to be able to manage cases of infectious disease by isolating people within there," he said.

"That was not an easy decision for ministers or for anybody to make, but it was in the context of hospitals absolutely risking being overloaded.”

He says elderly patients could have been asymptomatic in hospital but potentially “staying in hospital and becoming infected."The UK Covid Inquiry will continue to hear evidence in Cardiff for the next two weeks.

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