It was, once again, left to the chief medical officer to deliver some blunt messages at Wednesday night’s Covid press conference, as he advised people eager to see their families at Christmas to “deprioritise” less important social interactions. Boris Johnson did not disagree with this advice, though he notably did not repeat it himself, and later insisted Christmas parties could still go ahead. Several Conservative ministers and MPs have since jumped on this apparent gap, arguing Whitty has overstepped his role and is dictating policy.
These attacks are misjudged. The prime minister may find it difficult politically to own messages of caution, but that is the clear implication of his government’s approach. Whitty – who has a duty to provide advice to the public as well as ministers – is performing his role just as he should. The only difference is while the government has not rowed back on his advice, nor has it adopted it as formal guidance (as it has previously).
While it may suit Johnson to give the appearance that he is not responsible for messages unpopular with his party, he should be honest enough to make clear that he backs Whitty’s advice, or if he doesn’t, brave enough to lead his government and set out an alternative.
The role of chief medical officer has a long history. Dating back to 1855, the occupant is responsible for providing independent advice to the health secretary and prime minister on public health issues and keeping the public informed on issues of concern. It is, by design, a more independent and public-facing position than most civil servants. Sometimes described as the “nation’s doctor”, the CMO has a statutory responsibility to advise the country on public health. At times, this can mean CMOs publicly criticise government policy: Sir Liam Donaldson was an outspoken critic of the Blair government’s slowness in introducing a full smoking ban; Dame Sally Davies often flagged her support for minimum alcohol pricing.
CMOs have to balance the different parts of their role – and throughout the crisis Whitty has been at pains to distinguish his advice from government policy (despite often being asked to defend the latter). As he told a committee of MPs yesterday when questioned about his comments, “this is advice I think any CMO would have given”.
The latest attacks – not only from backbenchers but members of the cabinet – are mostly from people who disagree with the government’s approach to Covid.
Steve Brine, a backbencher, accused Whitty of changing government strategy “at a stroke” into “an effective lockdown” and questioned why “advisers are now running the show”. A government source said Whitty was “freelancing” and had “thrown a grenade” into the government’s Covid strategy which was to allow people to “still go out and enjoy themselves”. Several cabinet ministers told The Times they were “privately furious”.
But these critics are misdirecting their ire. If they are unhappy with the government’s approach, they should take it up with the prime minister. While the Cabinet may formally decide the policies, it is the prime minister who is making the calls. It is down to him and his team to decide the messaging and how to use press conferences to get them across. Johnson and Whitty would have discussed top lines; it is hard to imagine Johnson didn’t know what Whitty thought before the press conference. If he disagreed with his CMO’s comments he should say so – or tell Whitty’s critics in his party that they are wrong.
Rather than a Whitty power grab, Wednesday’s press conference appears more in keeping with a trend throughout the crisis. Johnson did not have to give Whitty a platform to address the nation, but as a leader reluctant to deliver bad news he seems to prefer to rely on the scientists to make the case for measures he ultimately realises are necessary. SAGE members we interviewed felt he often “hid behind a cloak of science”.
It is welcome that No10 and the health secretary Sajid Javid have made clear their general support for Whitty, calling him an outstanding public servant. But the government ought to make it crystal clear that it fully backs his advice
The attacks on Whitty also rather miss the urgency of the picture the government set out on Wednesday: the UK faces a “tidal wave of cases”; we are still very uncertain how deadly that wave could be; whatever happens the NHS is likely to face a very difficult period.
While the government acted relatively early once Omicron was identified, its response – “Plan B plus boosters” – is struggling to keep pace with the incredibly fast spread of the new variant. Whitty’s advice to reduce contact appeared simply to be in line (though milder) with what Scotland and Wales are doing and, more importantly, with what the public has already started to do. As before, people appear to be ahead of politicians in adjusting their behaviour (restaurant bookings are down 20%). Many will think it is simply common sense – with levels of Omicron as they are – to reduce their social plans over the next weeks.
This creates other problems though: as my colleague Tom Pope has argued, there is now a strong case for the Treasury to step in again to support good businesses that might fail. The chancellor appeared initially reluctant; surfacing on his way back from California, he said “the government is not telling people to cancel things” and let it be known he was “surprised” by Whitty’s comments. As with the prime minister’s reluctance to tell people directly to change their behaviour, this ignores reality on the ground and appears likely to prove a position that won’t hold.
Ultimately, Whitty is being blamed for saying what seems obvious given where we are with Omicron. The prime minister has already begun to change his tone on socialising, albeit rather messily. He should be unequivocal in backing Whitty’s advice – and act quickly to resolve the confusion in the government’s approach.
The attacks on Whitty – summed up by the Daily Mail front page headline “Tories Turn On Whitty” – also raise a more troubling prospect. Whitty has already been subject to harassment and intimidation on the street and outside his home. It would be particularly shabby of the prime minister to allow a story of “unelected advisers versus democracy” to continue to fester.