Chief medical officer: with hindsight UK went into lockdown a week late
By an uncanny coincidence, news emerged from northern China of a new type of unusual pneumonia last week just as the Covid inquiry heard evidence from the scientists advising the UK government during the Covid-19 pandemic 2020-2022.
The news from China caused sufficient concern at the World Health Organisation (WHO) that it asked the Chinese government for more information. Covid-19 had also first appeared as an unusual type of pneumonia in December 2019 in China; it was suppressed locally until Dr Li Weinlang blew the whistle on the public health authorities in Wuhan – he later died of Covid in February 2020. However, the scientists who gave evidence to the Covid inquiry did not complain of a lack of information from China on the outbreak of Covid-19.
It is too early to worry about a repeat pandemic. Obviously, it is wise for public health authorities everywhere to monitor the nature and spread of the new pneumonia variant, but it does not look as though it has pandemic potential.
The evidence of UK’s most eminent scientists to the Covid inquiry began with Sir Patrick Vallance who was the government’s chief scientific officer (CSO) during the pandemic until he left in the summer of 2022. The main thrust of his evidence was that prime ministers and presidents everywhere in Europe had great difficulty in understanding the science. In the UK prime minister Boris Johnson could not get his head round basic scientific concepts; he was bamboozled by “the science” Sir Patrick claimed. To be fair to Johnson he understood very early that the answer to Covid was to find an effective vaccine ASAP.
Sir Patrick told the inquiry that while he was initially pleased government ministers had said they would “follow the science,” he quickly realised that it was misused both by government and press.
There is no such thing as “the science”, he told the inquiry, and the error margin was such it could not be followed. Science is a process based on constantly testing theories and hypotheses against evidence that is in a permanent state of flux.
His role as CSO was to make sure that the evidence base of the science was sound; that it was understood by ministers when formulating policy; and to monitor the resultant policy for the desired effect on the spread of the disease.
The next scientist to give evidence was professor Sir Chris Whitty who was the chief medical officer (CMO) for England who advised the government on public health; not just in terms of how to protect the public from the pandemic but the overall effect of the government’s response to the pandemic on public health.
His evidence was that with hindsight he conceded the UK went into lockdown about a week late on March 23, 2020, though the data for the need to do so was unclear at the time. The modelling that informed decision-making in the beginning had its limitations in that it was not based on real data but on assumptions. A complete lockdown of the country to contain person to person infection was a huge step given its adverse side effects on public health generally, and his cautious approach was justified.
He said he was concerned that there was loose talk about herd immunity by infection, which was never an option as a policy because it would involve high mortality – herd immunity by vaccination was the preferred option. He had differences with Sir Patrick Vallance about going into lockdown earlier but did not wish to indulge in the narcissism of small differences, he said. He agreed that his deputy Professor Jonathan Van-Tam’s gut instinct was to go in early ahead of the curve, but he did not think the data justified precipitate action. The impression he gave was that a cautious evidence-based course was best.
He was less inclined to criticise Boris Johnson, confining himself to saying his style was unique, save that he disagreed with both Johnson and the current prime minister Rishi Sunak, who was finance minister at the time, that he and his deputy had cleared the policy of “eat out to help out” in support of hospitality. The policy was highly likely to increase infections and deaths and it is clear from all three scientists that they were not consulted – it was Sunak’s idea, and he will have to answer for it when he gives evidence.
Sir Chris ended his evidence by identifying an important systemic weakness as food for thought. The government’s response to pandemics was not, he said, as electrifying as threats from terrorism even though pandemics are often more serious national emergencies.
The last top scientist to give evidence was professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam whose expertise is specifically on respiratory diseases including serious acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). For him the alarm bells about Covid started ringing as early as mid-January 2020; it was his job to monitor outbreaks worldwide and this one had pandemic potential. He conceded his concerns were instinctive, albeit based on long experience. However, he did not press his concerns further out of respect for the chain of command. In any case port controls were not efficacious and more draconian measures in January 2020 would have been premature and disproportionate.
The situation had altered by March, and while person to person transmission in open-air sports gatherings like football matches were not super-spreader events, the optics of such gatherings gave the wrong impression that all was well when it was not.
His final flourish was that he did not expect he and his family to be exposed to vilification and danger as a result of his involvement in the scientific response to the pandemic. At some point it was so bad the police suggested he temporarily move out of his home. He refused because he was asked to leave the family cat behind – good on you Sir Jonathan!
At the end of another week of evidence the Covid inquiry showed yet again the priceless advantage of an open society – good on you Britain!
Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge