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Chris Whitty ‘clashed with Patrick Vallance’ in early days of pandemic

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Chris Whitty ‘clashed with Patrick Vallance’ in early days of pandemic because he was ‘wary of over-reacting’ to threat of coronavirus, government adviser reveals

  • Sir Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, made comments in new book 
  • He said Professor Whitty was ‘wary of over-reacting’ in early days of the crisis
  • Said Sir Patrick ‘took our worries seriously’ but Professor Whitty was more cautious 

Professor Chris Whitty was worried about over-reacting to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to tensions with his scientific counterpart Sir Patrick Vallance, according to a senior Government adviser.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, who is head of the Wellcome Trust, said England’s chief medical officer had been ‘much more cautious’ about speeding up preparations for a pandemic when cases were first identified in Britain early last year.

In what is the first criticism of the role played by England’s chief medical officer at the start of the crisis last year, Sir Jeremy said Professor Whitty was ‘wary of over-reacting’ to the threat posed by the virus.

He said his view clashed with other experts who were concerned about the scale of what turned out to be a global pandemic.

Writing in new book, Spike: The Virus vs. The People – the Inside Story, Sir Jeremy is also very critical of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the handling of the crisis by his Government.

Professor Chris Whitty was worried about over-reacting to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to tensions with his scientific counterpart Sir Patrick Vallance, according to a senior Government adviser. Above: Professor Whitty (right) and Sir Patrick in March last year

Professor Chris Whitty was worried about over-reacting to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to tensions with his scientific counterpart Sir Patrick Vallance, according to a senior Government adviser. Above: Professor Whitty (right) and Sir Patrick in March last year

Speaking in an interview with The Times ahead of its publication next week, Sir Jeremy said the ‘British state machinery did not get a grip. 

‘The machinery of government did not click fast enough.’

The infectious diseases expert, who is also a member of Sage – the body of experts which advises the Government – said it was clear from January that coronavirus presented a serious danger to public health.

He said: ‘I had already texted both Patrick [Vallance] and Chris Whitty… back in January to share my concerns – that this was a coronavirus related to Sars; that human-to-human transmission was possible; and that there had already been a geographic spread.’

Sir Jeremy Farrar, who is head of the Wellcome Trust, said England's chief medical officer had been 'much more cautious' about speeding up preparations for a pandemic when cases were first identified in Britain early last year

Sir Jeremy Farrar, who is head of the Wellcome Trust, said England’s chief medical officer had been ‘much more cautious’ about speeding up preparations for a pandemic when cases were first identified in Britain early last year

Sir Jeremy claimed that Professor Neil Ferguson, whose grim modelling warned hundreds of thousands of Brits could die without the first lockdown last March and who was then part of Sage, emailed him, Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty on January 24, 2020, to warn that preparedness should be boosted.

He reportedly expressed his concerns after he ‘guessed’ that infected travellers from abroad were ‘slipping through the net’, Sir Jeremy said.

He said that Sir Patrick ‘took our worries seriously’ because the scientist was aware of his expertise in ’emerging infections’.

However, he said Whitty’s initial response was to wanted to be ‘much more cautious, to wait and weigh everything before taking action’.

Professor Chris Whitty

Sir Patrick Vallance

In what is the first criticism of the role played by England’s chief medical officer at the start of the crisis last year, Sir Jeremy said Professor Whitty was ‘wary of over-reacting’ to the threat posed by the virus. Above: Professor Whitty (left) and Sir Patrick during a Downing Street press conference in October last year 

He likened Whitty’s initial response to how the ‘global health and infectious disease community can sometimes adopt a slightly weary attitude of “We’ve seen it all before these things are never as bad as you think”.

The expert said tensions then rose to a ‘palpable’ level between the two men when cases were first identified in Britain.

He hinted that this was made worse by an alleged absence of political leadership in that period.

It previously emerged that the PM failed to attend the first five meetings of Cobra at the start of the crisis.

Sir Jeremy speculated that Whitty may have been made wary by his previous experience in Government in 2009, when the H1N1 swine flue pandemic was projected to kill 65,000 people but ended up leading to the deaths of less than 300 Britons.

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