LONDON — The British government failed to take the coronavirus pandemic as seriously as a terror attack, a top government scientist told the country’s official COVID-19 inquiry Tuesday — even as he declined to take swipes at Boris Johnson.
The government’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty — who became a household name in the U.K. during the crisis — avoided singling out individuals for the U.K. government’s mixed record as he faced the inquiry. Instead, he trained his fire on the machinery of the British state.
Whitty was the main source of health advice to Johnson, then the prime minister, during the pandemic. He argued that Whitehall failed to become “electrified” in the way it should have done at the start of the pandemic — and that health threats were not taken as seriously as other national security threats 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 government’s next emergency COBR committee meeting on the virus — leaving the responsibility to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
“Had, let us say, the director general of [security service] MI5 come in and said there is a possibility of 100,000-plus people sadly dying from a terrorist attack or an attack on the U.K. … the chances that the system would have continued as it did, and the next COBR meeting still chaired by [Hancock], I think is quite small,” Whitty said.
“The system is surprisingly bad, in my view, at responding to threats of this kind which are not in the traditional national security system,” he added. “I think nobody looking at this could say it was ideal.”
Whitty earlier admitted that, with the benefit of hindsight, the U.K. “went a bit too late” when choosing to lock down during the virus’ first wave.
When asked about Johnson — and a chaotic style of leadership that has been repeatedly highlighted by witnesses at the inquiry — Whitty said he didn’t want to offer “commentaries” on individual politicians.
“I think that the way Mr Johnson took decisions was unique to him,” Whitty said when drawn — to laughter in the inquiry room.
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