LONDON — The British government did not take the coronavirus pandemic as seriously as a terrorist attack, a leading government scientist told the country’s official COVID-19 inquiry on Tuesday – even though he refused to attack Boris Johnson.
The government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty – who has become a household name in the UK during the crisis – has avoided targeting certain people due to the UK government’s mixed record when facing the inquiry. Instead, he turned his fire on the machinery of the British state.
Whitty was the main source of health advice to then-Prime Minister Johnson during the pandemic. He argued that Whitehall had failed to “electrify” itself as it should have done at the start of the pandemic – and that health threats were not being taken as seriously as other threats to national security would have been.
Whitty said he warned Johnson in early February 2020 that the pandemic could lead to more than 100,000 deaths – a grim prediction that later came true. Despite this, Johnson chose not to chair the next emergency meeting of the government’s COBR committee on the virus – leaving the responsibility to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
“If, say, the director general (of security services) of MI5 had come and said that there was a possibility that over 100,000 people would unfortunately die because of a terrorist attack or an attack on the UK… the chances that the system would have continued as it has been, and the next COBR meeting still chaired by (Hancock), I think is quite small,” Whitty said.
“The system is surprisingly bad, in my opinion, at responding to threats of this type that are not part of the traditional national security system,” he added. “I don’t think anyone could say it was ideal.”
Whitty admitted earlier that, in hindsight, the UK “went a little too late” in choosing to go into lockdown during the first wave of the virus.
Asked about Johnson – and a chaotic leadership style that was repeatedly highlighted by witnesses at the inquiry – Whitty said he did not want to offer “commentary” on individual politicians.
“I think the way Mr. Johnson made his decisions was unique to him,” Whitty said, drawn to the laughter in the investigation room.