Eight times Chris Whitty has diverged from the government line on Covid-19

Posted: June 25th 2020


This article points to the fascinating tension between science and politics and to me it is not always the scientists who should carry the day. There are some tough trade offs here. If we get a series of second peaks the decision about how to seal off places, particularly if they are in rural settings will introduce still more of such challenges. 

In his frequent appearances at Downing Street press briefings, Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has generally stood quietly as the prime minister, or one of his cabinet colleagues, has defended the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But there have been instances when Whitty has diverged directly or indirectly from the government line.

On easing the lockdown from 4 July

If people hear a distorted version of what’s being said, that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ and start behaving in ways that they normally would have before this virus happened, yes, we will get an uptick for sure.

Beating the virus

On 19 March, Boris Johnson said: “We can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country.”

On 22 April, Whitty said:

We are going to have to do a lot of things for really quite a long period of time, the question is what is the best package and this is what we’re trying to work out.


A member of the government’s coronavirus taskforce said on 18 April that trials of a vaccine could be done by mid-August.

On 22 April, Whitty said:

Until we have those [vaccines], and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year are incredibly small and I think we should be realistic about that, we’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment.”

Change in messaging to ‘Stay Alert’

Government line: Johnson said it was “not right” that Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, had not signed off the change in messaging from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert”.

On 11 May, Whitty said:

Neither Sir Patrick nor I consider ourselves to be comms experts, so we’re not going to get involved in actual details of comms strategies, but we are involved in the overall strategic things and we have been at every stage.

Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham

Government line: Cummings did not break the lockdown rules when driving his family from London to Durham while his wife had suspected coronavirus and then making a 60-mile round-trip to a beauty spot. 

On 28 May, refusing to answer, Whitty said:

The desire to not get pulled into politics is far stronger on the part of Sir Patrick and me than it is in the prime minister.

Reduction of virus threat level

Government line: it wanted to lower the alert level from four to three.

Whitty rejects lowering of threat level. Explaining the reason it was not lowered, Downing Street said on 2 June:

In terms of the setting of the alert level, it’s ultimately for the chief medical officers, who are informed by the data, which has been collected, collated and analysed by the JBC (Joint Biosecurity Centre).

2-metre rule

Government line: the prime minister wants it to be relaxed to make it easier to travel on public transport and boost the hospitality industry.

On 3 June, Whitty said:

Those [measures – hand washing, use of face coverings and the 2-metre rule] are going to carry on really for as long as this epidemic continues.


Government line: Johnson says judgments on what could have been done better are “premature”.

On 10 June, Whitty said:

I think there is a long list, actually, of things that we need to look at very seriously.

If I was to choose one, it would probably be looking at how we could … speed up testing very early on in the epidemic. Many of the problems that we have had came because we were unable to actually work out exactly where we were.