A Question for Chris Whitty

I haven’t watched any of the Government’s COVID-19 press briefings since the early weeks of the pandemic. The scientific parts seemed to be mostly concerned with projections from rather dubious epidemiological models, and the political parts were even less informative.

As I understand it, the Q&A that follows whatever Boris and the boffins have said often involves journalists demanding to know why there aren’t more restrictions in place (more rules, more limits, more penalties).

Ironically, these questions tend to come from people who a few months before the pandemic might have compared Boris Johnson’s Government to certain mid-20th century political movements that we now associate with authoritarianism.

What questions would I ask Boris and the boffins? There are many I’d like to raise, including: “Why hasn’t the government published a cost-benefit analysis of lockdown?” Such analyses are routine in policy-making, and you’d expect that something as far-reaching as a national lockdown would justify one.

Another query I’d like to make is: “What specific evidence led the government to change its advice on masks?” Back on 4th March 2020, Chris Whitty told Sky News that “wearing a mask if you don’t have an infection reduces the risk almost not at all”. And as late as 3rd April, Jonathan Van Tam said “there is no evidence that general wearing of face masks… affects the spread of the disease”.

However, the question I’d most like to ask – of Chris Whitty in particular – is as follows.

Professor Whitty, on 5th March 2020, you told the Health and Social Care Committee that “we will get 50% of all the cases over a three-week period and 95% of the cases over a nine-week period”. You said that we are “very keen” to “minimise economic and social disruption”, and mentioned that “one of the best things we can do” is “isolate older people from the virus”.  

This all sounds rather similar to the Great Barrington Declaration. Why then, in an interview with The BMJ on November 4th, did you describe that document as “wrong scientifically, practically, and probably ethically as well”? You said that the Great Barrington Declaration is “really a pretty minority view”, but it appears to have been your view as recently as eight months earlier.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a document titled “UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011”, which was published by the Department of Health. It says that attempting to stop the spread of a new pandemic influenza “would be a waste of public health resources and capacity”.

And as late as 2019, the World Health Organisation published a report titled “Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza”. This document classifies “quarantine of exposed individuals” as “not recommended in any circumstances”.

Given that the WHO, the Department of Health and you – as recently as March 2020 – have rejected suppression as a strategy for dealing with respiratory pandemics, why did you describe the alternative focused protection strategy as “wrong scientifically”? Thank you for listening, and I look forward to your answer.

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