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Wales should have been involved in SAGE meetings earlier in the pandemic – Chris Whitty

22 Nov 2023 4 minute read
Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty giving evidence at Dorland House in London.

Emily Price

Representatives from Wales should have been involved in Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) meetings earlier in the pandemic than they were, Professor Chris Whitty has told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

The chief medical officer for England made the comments whilst giving evidence to the  Inquiry on Wednesday (November 22).

SAGE provided advice to support UK cross-government decisions in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room, in Whitehall, throughout the crisis.

Kirsten Heaven, who is representing Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru, asked him if criticism in a report that suggested data was too ‘England-focused’ was fair.

Professor Whitty said: “The simple answer is that the modellers and the data were taken from wherever you could get modellers and data.

“Data flows, even within England were very problematic, as I think multiple witnesses have said, and I’ll repeat it, they were very problematic, and that was part of the reason we had trouble in first three months.”

“Getting data flows from elsewhere in the UK, also had challenges, so there were actual data acquisition questions.

“The four UK CMOs (chief medical officers) have absolute parity in my view, but data is based on numbers and numerically there are many more people in England and Wales.

“And therefore numerically, the numbers will be larger from England, now as the pandemic progressed we got better and better data from different areas.

“Also, each of the four nations or the four nations, or at least each of the other three nations, other than England, took slightly different approaches to the extent to which they did their own analysis or relied on a UK wide analysis.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We will not be commenting on any matters relating to the inquiry as proceedings are now underway. We have made it clear that we continue to engage fully with the inquiry to ensure all actions and decisions are fully and properly scrutinised.”

“No consultation”

England’s Chief Medical Officer also said he, along with other scientific advisers to the UK Government, were not consulted on Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out Scheme.

Supporting what Sir Patrick Vallance told the inquiry on Monday (November 20), Professor Whitty said: “My written statement makes clear there was no consultation.”

Hugo Keith, KC, counsel to the inquiry, then asked: “I need to put to you that in his witness statement, Boris Johnson says ‘It was properly discussed, including with Chris and Patrick’, do you agree with that?”

Professor Whitty replied: “On this one, neither Patrick nor I can recall it and I think we would have done.”

He added: “I made fairly firmly to number 10, not to the Prime Minister, the view that it would have been prudent, let’s put it that way, for them to have thought about discussing it before it was launched.”

Professor Whitty said that it was “perfectly legitimate” for the Treasury and other departments to come up with different schemes.

He said that “it may well be correct that the Prime Minister was under the impression we had been consulted” about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme even though they had not.

When the scheme was introduced during the summer of 2020, the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser, Prof Dame Angela McLean dubbed Rishi Sunak “Dr Death the chancellor” because it incentivised people to eat out at cafes and restaurants.

Last month, the UK Covid Inquiry was told that UK Government Ministers including Boris Johnson were reluctant to hold regular meetings with the leaders of Wales and Scotland during the pandemic because they feared a “potential federalist Trojan horse”.

A spokesperson from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru said: “It’s astonishing that representatives from Wales were not invited to SAGE meetings until 4 March 2020 – the 13th meeting!

“SAGE is the main forum for scientific advice in an emergency and Wales should have had input into decision making and had full access to all the material.

“What did the Welsh Government do to ensure that representation sooner? Once again we are seeing little thought given to the people of Wales.”

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