Chris Whitty issues warning over pandemic in 2018
As the UK’s lockdown restrictions were loosened this week, one public health director is warning that proactive surge testing is needed to help officials “get ahead of the infection”. Professor Kevin Fenton, London’s regional director of Public Health England (PHE), said further genetic sequencing of positive tests had identified cases of the South African variant in the capital. With fears of potential new variants still rife, SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies) member Professor John Edmunds warned that local restrictions could still be reintroduced at a later stage. The priority since the start of the pandemic has been to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and to ensure hospitals aren’t overrun. In March last year, just after the first lockdown was introduced, Professor Chris Whitty called on the Government’s Moral and Ethical Advisory Group (MEAG) for advice on selecting patients for intensive care.
A document, which was never published, was produced in a meeting reportedly attended by Prof Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer.
But his colleagues were baffled by its suggestions, as claimed in Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, a book written by the two journalists who wrote about the Government’s handling of Covid for the Sunday Times.
According to Calvert & Arbuthnott some present at the meeting were concerned by an “isolated indicator of wellbeing” test as this element of the draft plan could risk discriminating against the weak and disabled.
According to a Sunday Times report published last year, and included in the new book, one member said: “It looked really Nazi-like to me, but there are many voices on that committee.”
Further quotes from the book – which were collected by the two authors, who also worked on the Times report – said the unnamed member added: “It’s a horrible little diagram. Disgusting.”
The member concluded: “The tool was not welcomed because it seemed primitive. A lot of the members – and I was one of them – thought it was extremely crude.”
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When asked for a comment regarding these claims by Express.co.uk, the Department of Health issued a strong denial, branding the claims as “false”.
It said: “These claims are false and show a fundamental misunderstanding of clinical processes.
“From the outset we have done everything possible to protect the public and save lives.”
Another version of the document was shown, raising the score for specific illnesses but lowering it for age.
As Extracts from Failures of State claim this draft plan was sdvising that anyone over 80 and not at peak health should be denied intensive care, another claim which the Department of Health strongly denies.
It added: “Patients will always receive the best possible care from the NHS and the claim intensive care beds were rationed or patients were prevented from receiving necessary care is false.
“Doctors make decisions on who will benefit from care every day, as part of normal clinical decision-making.”
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NHS data shows that the proportion of over-60s with the coronavirus who received intensive care halved between the middle of March and the end of April as the pressure intensified at the start of the pandemic.
Sir Jonathan Montgomery, MEAG’s co-chairman, said the guidance was not formally approved or published at the time, but he confirmed the tool had been distributed to doctors and hospitals as part of the consultation process and claimed “some of them were using it”.
The age-based plan was also alleged to have been used in London, Manchester, Liverpool and the South-East of England.
Earlier in March, before lockdown was enforced, the Government and its team then began planning a response to a surge in cases, with Professor Whitty announcing that only patients in hospital would be routinely tested for the virus.
However, this sparked criticism from experts who warned tracing the virus was key to preventing it from spreading.
Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Health at Edinburgh University, said: “I was absolutely astonished.
“I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of what was being said. And then it hit me, actually, they are letting the virus go.
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“And so at that time I just felt like we were sleepwalking into disaster.”
Gabriel Scally, a former regional director of public health in the south-west, added: “I didn’t think it was possible they would be abandoning community testing and tracing.
“That’s leaving an open playing field for the virus.”
Prof Whitty was also sceptical that the British public would follow social distancing measures, warning that “it’s very important we don’t start things in advance of need”.
But Susan Michie, who worked with Prof Whitty during the pandemic, described this idea as “illogical”.
She added: “The earlier you act, the lower the scale of the problem and the quicker it will be resolved.
“I hope there is not just a Government inquiry but an independent public inquiry. I think that will be one of the things that will be seen as, among many mistakes the Government has made, one of the bigger ones.”
Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus, by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, was published by Mudlark in March. It is available here.