Sir Chris Whitty spent early parts of the Covid pandemic trying to “implore” people in government not to publicly discuss health concepts they did not fully understand such as “flattening the curve” of infections and herd immunity, he said.
Giving evidence to the inquiry into Covid, Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said he did this after realising that incomplete knowledge could be “a dangerous thing”.
While it was not disclosed who Whitty was talking about, during this period Boris Johnson described efforts to “squash the sombrero”, meaning make interventions which would limit a first peak of Covid infections.
In a marathon evidence session, which will continue into Wednesday, Whitty accepted that the government could have responded more quickly to the pandemic.
However, he insisted this was largely due to institutional failings and pushed back against suggestions from the inquiry counsel, Hugo Keith KC, that he should have raised the alarm more stridently in the early months of 2020.
Asked about the “flatten the curve” debate, Whitty said: “My view was that quite a lot of rather fanciful discussion occurred, including between people who didn’t, in my view, fully grasp the technical aspects they were talking about if I am blunt, which led to quite a confused public debate. That applied to a number of things, herd immunity was one, there are a number of other ones.
“On several occasions, as you have probably had the privilege of reading my rather dull, compared to other people’s, WhatsApps, I implore people not to try and talk about some of these issues because [they could be] confusing, rather than enlightening the public, but there we are, lots of people like to talk.
“So I think there was a confusion, some of it stemmed from an actual strategic lack of clarity and some of it in my view stemmed from if I’m honest, a little knowledge thing, a dangerous thing.”
In sometimes testy exchanges with Keith, Whitty lamented what he described as a wider failure, both in government and the media, to understand epidemiological concepts such as modelling, saying this at times saw him pushed to give “spurious numbers about another spurious number leading to a misunderstanding”.
At the start of the pandemic, he added, there was a surprising lack of understanding in government about how exponential growth can mean initially very small infection numbers could grow quickly.
“I found this surprising given that so many people in both politics and in the official system are trained in economics,” he said. “People just don’t get that. I think they got it a bit more now because of having seen it.”
Pressed repeatedly about whether he and other scientific and medical advisers should have called more urgently for action by early February 2020, as the scale of the likely threat emerged, Whitty said he had briefed national security advisers, Johnson, MPs and others.
However, he said, there was an institutional slowness when it came to responding to natural threats. If, he argued, ministers had been warned that 100,000 people were at risk of dying in a terrorist attack, the chances were “quite small” that things would carry on essentially as before.
Whitty said: “My worry has always been that hard geopolitical threats are treated in a different way to ones that are treated as natural threats or hazards. That is something, collectively, we should think about.”
This was, he added, a systemic failure and not a result of the leadership of Johnson or due to other individuals.
Asked if he had seen the then-prime minister as indecisive or chaotic, Whitty said: “I think that the way that Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him.”