In his frequent appearances at Downing Street press briefings, Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has generally stood quietly as the prime minister, or one of his cabinet colleagues, has defended the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But there have been instances when Whitty has diverged directly or indirectly from the government line.
With his own judgment now under scrutiny, his remarks have often jarred with the optimistic tone adopted by ministers.
On Tuesday, Whitty repeatedly cautioned the crisis is not over – the latest in a series of sobering interventions.
On easing the lockdown from 4 July
If people hear a distorted version of what’s being said, that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ and start behaving in ways that they normally would have before this virus happened, yes, we will get an uptick for sure.
It is absolutely critical people stick to the guidance that has been given; it’s a changed guidance for there are still very significant restrictions socially and there are very significant restrictions on business of different sorts.
I would be surprised and delighted if we weren’t in this current situation through the winter and into next spring.
I expect there to be a significant amount of coronavirus circulating at least into that time and I think it is going to be quite optimistic that for science to come fully to the rescue over that kind of timeframe.”
Beating the virus
On 22 April, Whitty said:
We are going to have to do a lot of things for really quite a long period of time, the question is what is the best package and this is what we’re trying to work out.
On 10 June, Whitty said:
Be very clear, we are not at the end of this epidemic, not by a long way. We are in the middle of it.
A member of the government’s coronavirus taskforce said on 18 April that trials of a vaccine could be done by mid-August.
On 22 April, Whitty said:
Until we have those [vaccines], and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year are incredibly small and I think we should be realistic about that, we’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment.”
Change in messaging to ‘Stay Alert’
Government line: Johnson said it was “not right” that Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, had not signed off the change in messaging from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert”.
On 11 May, Whitty said:
Neither Sir Patrick nor I consider ourselves to be comms experts, so we’re not going to get involved in actual details of comms strategies, but we are involved in the overall strategic things and we have been at every stage.
Government line: Cummings did not break the lockdown rules when driving his family from London to Durham while his wife had suspected coronavirus and then making a 60-mile round-trip to a beauty spot.
On 28 May, refusing to answer, Whitty said:
The desire to not get pulled into politics is far stronger on the part of Sir Patrick and me than it is in the prime minister.
Reduction of virus threat level
Government line: it wanted to lower the alert level from four to three.
Whitty rejects lowering of threat level. Explaining the reason it was not lowered, Downing Street said on 2 June:
In terms of the setting of the alert level, it’s ultimately for the chief medical officers, who are informed by the data which has been collected, collated and analysed by the JBC (Joint Biosecurity Centre).
Government line: the prime minister wants it to be relaxed to make it easier to travel on public transport and boost the hospitality industry.
Those [measures – hand washing, use of face coverings and the 2-metre rule] are going to carry on really for as long as this epidemic continues.
Government line: Johnson says judgments on what could have been done better are “premature”.
I think there is a long list, actually, of things that we need to look at very seriously.
If I was to choose one, it would probably be looking at how we could … speed up testing very early on in the epidemic. Many of the problems that we have had came because we were unable to actually work out exactly where we were.