LONDON (AP) — Britain’s government was too late in taking action against the coronavirus during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, the U.K.’s chief medical adviser said Tuesday in testimony to the independent COVID-19 inquiry.
Responding to questions about the early days of the pandemic, Chris Whitty said he felt he was more wary than others about the negative impacts of isolation policies, school closures and lockdowns. He said he had been concerned in particular about longer-term impacts on the poorest people and those living alone, and described the difficulties in balancing the risks of introducing measures “too early” or “too late.”
But he rejected suggestions by the inquiry’s lawyer, Hugo Keith, that he had warned the government against “overreacting.” He said he made it clear to policymakers that “without action, very serious things would occur.”
“With the benefit of hindsight, we went a bit too late on the first wave,” Whitty conceded. But he added “there were no good options.”
The inquiry was ordered by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021 to scrutinize and learn lessons from the U.K.’s response. Whitty became a household name during the pandemic, when he often appeared alongside Johnson and senior officials at daily televised government briefings on COVID-19.
The U.K. has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people. Many bereaved families say they were failed by politicians and policymakers whose actions contributed to unnecessary deaths and suffering.
Revelations that multiple lockdown rule-breaking parties took place at Johnson’s Downing Street residence during the height of the pandemic were among the scandals that ultimately forced Johnson to resign in 2022.
The inquiry’s current phase focuses on pandemic decision-making. Johnson and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was Treasury chief during the pandemic, are both expected to give evidence.
The U.K. imposed a national lockdown, with a mandatory stay-at-home order, in March 2020, shortly after France, Spain and Italy imposed similar measures.
Whitty said that while the government had in place a flu pandemic plan at the time, it became clear early on that the document was “woefully deficient” for coping with COVID-19.
“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,” he added.
This version corrects the lawyer’s first name to Hugo.