Chris Whitty: Britain’s Covid plans were ‘woefully deficient’ – even for a flu pandemic

Britain’s pandemic plans before Covid struck were “not particularly helpful” and would have been “woefully deficient” for even a flu pandemic, England’s chief medical officer has said.

Many have suggested that issues early in the pandemic were down to the fact that the UK’s pandemic preparedness plans were drawn up to deal with flu instead of a coronavirus.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty also told the Covid inquiry that it was clear in early 2020 that the plan was not going to be particularly helpful in the crisis, having been drawn up by people who had just gone through the swine flu pandemic, which had a very low death rate.

He said there are some good “building blocks” within the document but many of these blocks had to be constructed “in a rush” in the early days of the pandemic.

“I looked at the pandemic flu plan at the point when we were beginning to worry about this ... And it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to give us any particular help, frankly,” he said.

"So my view was we didn’t have a plan that was going to be useful from a prevention or management point of view – it had a lot of, a large number of useful components within it.

“But the idea there was a respiratory pandemic plan for the kind of pandemic this was going to be, if it was going to be a problem, that we could just take off the shelf and follow the playbook, was optimistic at best.”

On a long day of often testy exchanges between Sir Chris and the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC:

  • Sir Chris described how a “row” erupted when Dominic Cummings said he wanted to attend Sage meetings during the pandemic

  • He said Boris Johnson had a “unique” decision-making style, prompting Mr Keith to reply: “That’s a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one”

  • The chief medical officer said the former prime minister was better able to focus when “in a small group”

  • Sir Chris said the decision to implement Britain’s first lockdown was taken “a bit too late”

  • But he brushed off claims of a row with former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, claiming differences between them “were extremely small”

  • And he rejected the description of him as a “delayer”, saying that he did not push back against measures to tackle the pandemic but wanted “the downsides to be made transparent”

  • Sir Chris described the pandemic mantra of “following the science” as being a “millstone” around his neck

Quizzed over the government’s pandemic plans, Sir Chris said: “Had we had a flu pandemic, with a virus that had a mortality of, for the sake of argument, 1 per cent to 2 per cent, which is what we were thinking of at this point in time, it would also have been woefully deficient.

“So it was not that it was about flu and this was Covid – that had some important differences – it was about the fact this wasn’t designed, in my view, to meet this particular need at all.”

He said that it was clear that the pandemic preparedness plans had been drawn up by “people who had just been through a pandemic in which the mortality was very low”.

But he added: “If there had been a plan that laid out ‘this is how the playbook should run’ it would almost certainly have been the wrong plan and could even have slowed us down because we would have then spent ages arguing about whether this was the right plan and adapting the plan.

“So sometimes it is easier actually to start with a new plan but what we needed was all the building blocks.

“And in my view, we had some of the building blocks, intellectually and practically, but we definitely did not have all, they were constructed in many cases in quite a rush really in February and early March.”