Covid inquiry UK: Boris Johnson's Government would have paid more attention if threat had been terrorism, says Prof Chris Whitty

The UK Government would have paid much more attention to a terrorist threat than it did to the risks posed by Covid-19 amid a “systemic failure”, the public inquiry into the pandemic has heard.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty said there was an “opportunity where we could probably have moved up a gear or two across Government” in early February 2020 if the system had been “electrified” by the information it already had on Covid.

Under questioning from Hugo Keith KC, lead inquiry to the counsel, Sir Chris agreed there was a systemic failure, but said he was not criticising individuals.

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He said if MI5 had warned 100,000 people could die in a terrorist attack, the chance the system would have carried on as it did would have been “quite small”.

Former chief medical officer Chris Whitty attends the UK Covid-19 inquiry in London. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesFormer chief medical officer Chris Whitty attends the UK Covid-19 inquiry in London. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Former chief medical officer Chris Whitty attends the UK Covid-19 inquiry in London. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

He told the inquiry “the system is surprisingly bad, in my view, at responding to threats of this kind which are not in the national security system”.

During a meeting on February 4 with then-prime minister Boris Johnson, then-health secretary Matt Hancock and other Government officials, Sir Chris said it was his view that if a pandemic did occur “it was reasonable to think … that we would be looking on first pass at maybe 100,000 to 300,000 deaths”.

He was in the meeting and when risks were raised, he said “this wasn’t some maverick coming in and saying this”.

“This was on the basis of Sage [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] meetings chaired by the chief scientific adviser, Cobra had met, the World Health Organisation has by now declared a public health emergency of international concern, this is all over the news,” he said.

“Now, the point I would like to make on this – because I think this is actually something we really do need to think about very seriously in Government – is that had, let us say, the director general of MI5 or the Chief of the General Staff come in and said there is a possibility of 100,000-plus people sadly dying from a terrorist attack or from an attack on the UK, the chances that this would have been the response in the letter and that the system would have continued as it did – the next Cobra meeting still chaired by the secretary state for health and social care – I think is quite small.

“And the reason I’m making that point is this is not a new consideration. Pandemic infection, flu … has been top of the National Risk Register for years, this is not a new potential threat.”

He said his worry had always been “that hard geopolitical threats are treated in a different way” to natural threats.

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Earlier, Sir Chris said the way Mr Johnson made decisions during the pandemic was “unique” and he had a “distinct” style.

He also defended not raising the alarm across Government in mid-January 2020 about coronavirus, despite his deputy, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, warning that a pandemic was imminent.

In other evidence, Sir Chris was asked if Mr Johnson “had a difficulty in reaching clear, consistent positions”.

Sir Chris replied: “I think that the way that Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him. He has quite a distinct style, but I think lots of other people have got quite distinct styles.”

Sir Chris said he felt his role was not to “make commentaries on individual politicians”.

Asked about the efficiency of the administrative system around Mr Johnson, Sir Chris said: “I thought that the civil servants, particularly the health and economic private secretaries, did a very, very good job in difficult circumstances.

“I think that the political system around the prime minister was more mixed. It was quite often chaotic, but actually, I’d be very doubtful if it wasn’t chaotic in multiple other governments.”

Earlier, Sir Chris said action should have been taken earlier against the spread of Covid, but denied warning ministers against lockdowns.



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