Downing Street defends ‘respected and trusted’ Chris Whitty amid Tory attacks

Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Boris Johnson did not agree with Tory MP Joy Morrissey who said experts should defer to elected officials.

Pa Political Staff
Thursday 16 December 2021 14:26
Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (Leon Neal/PA)
Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (Leon Neal/PA)

Downing Street has defended the Government’s top medical adviser as Tory MPs accused experts of “running the show” and risking making the country a “public health socialist state”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Professor Chris Whitty the chief medical officer for England who has become a household name during the pandemic, was “a hugely respected and trusted public servant”.

And he said Boris Johnson did not agree with Tory MP Joy Morrissey who earlier on Thursday suggested experts should defer to elected officials.

Screengrab of tweet by Joy Morrissey (PA)

Ms Morrissey, the MP for Beaconsfield, deleted a tweet in which she said: “Perhaps the unelected covid public health spokesperson should defer to what our ELECTED Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister have decided.

“I know it’s difficult to remember but that’s how democracy works. This is not a public health socialist state.”

She deleted the tweet after she was criticised but later posted: “I am increasingly concerned at public health pronouncements made in the media that already seem to exceed or contradict decisions made by our elected representatives.

“Expert advice is important but decisions must be made by those we elect, who are democratically accountable.”

But Prof Whitty said he did not believe any minister felt he was “treading on their toes” by giving advice to the public on limiting the spread of Covid-19.

He told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee: “I am extremely clear on what I think the role of an adviser is, an independent adviser, and what I consider the very paramount role of ministers is.

Handout screen grab from Parliament TV of Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, giving evidence via video link to the Health and Social Care Committee in London, on the Omicron variant update

“But there has always been, from the very beginning, the very first chief medical officer in the 1850s, chief medical officers have always given advice to the general public.

“But ministers reserve to themselves, rightly, anything to do with the law, anything to do with balancing against the economy.

“This is advice that I think any chief medical officer would have given, and I don’t actually think that any minister is feeling I am treading on their toes on this one. This is my job.

“But I also consider that questions about things like further measures – those are very much for ministers, so it’s drawing a line between those two.”

And the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Professor Whitty is a hugely respected and trusted public servant who provides independent, evidence-based advice.

“I think he himself has been clear that he provides advice and it is rightly for ministers and elected politicians to decide.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to a vaccination centre in Ramsgate, Kent (Leon Neal/PA)

“He has been a hugely trusted and valued part of our pandemic response and continues to be so.”

In the Commons, Conservative former health minister Steve Brine said Prof Whitty had “put this country, certainly hospitality… into effective lockdown”, said advisers were “running the show” and asked for extra Treasury support to assist businesses.

Conservative MP Greg Smith said pubs in his Buckingham constituency have reported losing 50% to 60% of their bookings, while a coach operator “reported losing £40,000-worth of bookings yesterday alone”.

Mr Smith said advisers had pressed “the panic button way beyond what this House had voted for a couple of days ago”.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, Prof Whitty said it was sensible to prioritise the social interactions that matter, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting called Ms Morrissey’s comments “outrageous”.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting (Gareth Fuller/PA)

He tweeted: “It is outrageous to see a Government PPS (parliamentary private secretary) attacking the Chief Medical Officer in this way. She should apologise and withdraw this immediately. Chris Whitty has never disputed where policy is made – he makes this point repeatedly.”

He then accused her of “doubling down”.

He tweeted: “The Conservative Party has spiralled into disarray and Boris Johnson is too weak to act.”

Former Tory cabinet minister Julian Smith tweeted: “Personal attacks by any politician on members of @UKCivilService are completely unacceptable.

“@UKCivilService supports the government, works flat out & needs to be encouraged & defended in its role of offering impartial and confident advice.”

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