Whitty: We should have ‘cottoned on’ to the possibility of imposing a lockdown earlier
Counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith reads out a section of Professor Sir Chris Whitty’s witness statement in which he wrote that there was a “failure of imagination” on the part of scientists to envisage in January 2020 that measures like a lockdown might be needed.
Asked what he meant by that, Sir Chris firstly explains that he was very concerned that SAGE “captured the reality of previous pandemics”, such as surges in the winter months.
Secondly, he says that non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) such as quarantines and school closures were frequently used in previous public health emergencies.
But he adds: “By law, locking down all of society is not something which had previously been used, and you could argue – and I think it is reasonable to argue – that is something we should have cottoned on to at an earlier stage.”
He says a lockdown is something that could be considered “disproportionate” in most other public health situations.
Asked if that meant the government wasn’t warned early enough that a lockdown was a possibility, Sir Chris replies: “What SAGE was clearly advising by the time we get to the middle of March was that if ministers intended to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed… they were going to have to significantly reduce interactions between households and individuals.
“There are a variety of ways by which this could be done. The question about whether it was done by law actually is not a scientific question – it is a political and to some extent legal one.”
On whether ministers were aware it was a possibility, he points out that China had locked down, which was widely covered in the press.
However, Sir Chris also says that in early and mid-February, SAGE did not examine lockdown as a possibility, but they did look at ways to keep people separated.
He notes that had ministers asked SAGE to look at a Chinese-style lockdown at an earlier stage, they would have done so.