According to Sir Chris Whitty, he spent the beginning stages of the Covid pandemic urging government officials to avoid discussing health concepts like “flattening the curve” and herd immunity if they did not have a complete understanding of them.
During the Covid inquiry, Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, stated that he took this action upon recognizing that limited knowledge could potentially be harmful.
Although the individual mentioned by Whitty was not revealed, Boris Johnson referred to attempts to “squash the sombrero” during this time. This meant implementing measures to decrease the initial surge of Covid infections.
During a prolonged session of evidence gathering, which is expected to carry on until Wednesday, Whitty acknowledged that the government may have been able to react faster to the pandemic.
Although he maintained that this was primarily caused by shortcomings within the organization, he objected to the inquiry counsel, Hugo Keith KC, who implied that he should have voiced his concerns more strongly in the initial months of 2020.
When questioned about the ongoing discussion surrounding “flattening the curve,” Whitty expressed his opinion that much of the discourse was speculative and involved individuals who did not have a full understanding of the technical aspects. This led to a muddled public debate, which was also seen in discussions about other topics such as herd immunity.
“I have often sent WhatsApp messages that may seem dull in comparison to others. Therefore, I urge people not to discuss certain topics as they may cause confusion rather than enlightenment among the public. However, many people still enjoy discussing these matters.”
“I believe there was some misunderstanding, partly due to a lack of clear strategy and partly, in my opinion, due to a lack of knowledge which can be dangerous.”
During heated discussions with Keith, Whitty expressed frustration over a lack of understanding of epidemiological concepts, particularly in government and the media. He noted that this often led to him providing unclear statistics, which only furthered misunderstandings.
In the beginning of the pandemic, he mentioned, there was a notable lack of comprehension among government officials regarding the concept of exponential growth and its potential to rapidly increase infection numbers, even if they start off small.
“I was taken aback by this, especially since many individuals in both the political and official realms have education in economics,” he stated. “It seems that this concept is not well understood. However, I do believe there has been a slight increase in understanding due to witnessing its effects.”
When questioned multiple times about whether he and his fellow scientific and medical advisors should have urged for action earlier in February 2020 as the severity of the potential threat became clearer, Whitty stated that he had informed national security advisors, Johnson, Members of Parliament, and others.
According to him, there was a slow response from institutions towards natural threats. He believes that if ministers were alerted about the potential death of 100,000 people in a terrorist attack, it is unlikely that things would continue as usual.
Whitty expressed concern that there may be a discrepancy in how severe geopolitical threats are viewed compared to those that are seen as natural threats or hazards. He suggests that as a society, we should reflect on this issue.
He stated that this was a failure within the system, not a reflection on Johnson’s leadership or the actions of other individuals.
When asked if he viewed the former prime minister as indecisive or chaotic, Whitty responded that Mr Johnson had a distinct approach to making decisions.