England’s chief medical officer has launched a staunch defence of his actions over the Covid-19 pandemic, saying mass testing had to be abandoned due to capacity issues and lockdown came at about the right time.
In a heated exchange with former health secretary and chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee Jeremy Hunt, Professor Chris Whitty told MPs that widespread community testing earlier on in the pandemic required “an infrastructure we did not have”.
Asked by Mr Hunt why he had not advised that testing be ramped up quickly in January or February, as had been done in “four weeks” recently, Prof Whitty said: “I respectfully differ.
“You are going to say I suspect at some point … why is test, trace and isolate not brilliant now?
“This is after we’ve had huge investment and many months of preparation.
“The idea that you can suddenly switch this on, I’m afraid, is incorrect.
“The way you run emergencies badly is to try and run them based on a theory of what you could do rather than with the tools you have at your disposal.
“That is the way we had to run it and that is the way we did run it.”
Prof Whitty told Mr Hunt that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had consistently said that more testing capacity was needed.
But he agreed that, given the capacity, it was the correct advice to stop widespread community testing on March 12.
Prof Whitty also said that ministers followed scientific advice with a “delay that was no more than you would reasonably expect”.
Asked by Mr Hunt if he was “content” that the Government followed his advice on staging different elements of the lockdown, Prof Whitty said: “Ministers at the time, who were put in an incredibly difficult position, in my view, followed the advice given by Sage, which are clearly signposted through the minutes of Sage, with a delay that was no more than you would reasonably expect for what are really very difficult things to operationalise and decide.”
He added: “I do not think, I’m not saying now and I’m not going to say at any point, to be clear, that in my view there was huge delay between the advice that ministers received, given the enormity of the difficulties that we were asking of people and the practical implications of what was being done.”
Last month, Professor John Edmunds, a member of Sage, said the UK should have gone into lockdown earlier and that not doing so had cost “a lot of lives”.
His comments were echoed by former Sage member Professor Neil Ferguson, who said coronavirus deaths in the UK could have been halved if the Government had introduced the lockdown a week earlier.
Earlier in the committee hearing, Professor Sir John Bell, of the University of Oxford, told MPs it is unlikely Covid-19 will be eliminated.
“The reality is that this pathogen is here forever, it isn’t going anywhere,” he said.
“Look at how much trouble they’ve had in eliminating, for example, polio, that eradication programme has been going on for 15 years and they’re still not there.
“So this is going to come and go, and we’re going to get winters where we get a lot of this virus back in action.”
He added: “The vaccine is unlikely to have a durable effect that’ll last for a very long time so we’re going to have to have a continual cycle of vaccinations, and then more disease, and more vaccinations and more disease.
“So I think the idea that we’re going to eliminate it across the population, that’s just not realistic.”
Sir John said one of the UK’s biggest failures was not being on the “front foot” in preparation for a pandemic.
He told MPs: “The fact that we were asleep to the concept that we were going to have a pandemic, I think, shame on us.
“Since the year 2000 we’ve had eight close calls of emerging infectious diseases, any one of which could have swept the globe as a pandemic.
“This is not new and I think we should not be proud of the fact that we ended up with a system which had no resilience to pandemics.”
Wellcome Trust director and Sage member Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar said the world will be living with Covid-19 for “decades to come”.
He said: “Things will not be done by Christmas. This infection is not going away, it’s now a human endemic infection.
“Even, actually, if we have a vaccine or very good treatments, humanity will still be living with this virus for very many, many years to come.”
Prof Farrar also criticised the timing of the lockdown, saying: “I believe lockdown was too late, I believe lockdown should have come in earlier.”
Francis Crick Institute director Sir Paul Nurse said large numbers of health workers were infected at the height of the pandemic and spread the illness.
“At the height of the pandemic, our own research, and of course that only backs up what’s been done elsewhere, is that up to 45% of healthcare workers were infected,” he said.
“And they were infecting their colleagues, they were infecting patients, yet they weren’t been tested systematically.”
Sir John said hospitals were afraid of having to send staff home if they tested positive for Covid-19.
“As time went on, there still wasn’t a real push to do (screen) healthcare workers,” he said.
“And it sort of went on, and on, and on. And indeed there was a suspicion, which I think is probably correct, that NHS institutions and the NHS were avoiding testing their hospital workers because they were afraid they would find the kind of levels that Paul’s described (45%), and they would have to send everyone home, and as a result not have a workforce.”
An NHS spokesman said: “Actually, 1.1 million NHS staff have had an antibody test.”
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