Health & Lifestyle

Covid Inquiry chief condemns thugs who harassed pandemic experts including Chris Witty

Covid Inquiry chief condemns thugs and trolls who harassed pandemic experts after Chris Whitty warned threats and intimidation risked dissuading experts from helping in a future crisis

  • Head of Covid Inquiry Baroness Hallett condemned thugs who abused scientists
  • Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty was accosted by two obsessives in June 2021 

The head of the Covid Inquiry yesterday condemned the thugs and trolls who abused leading scientists during the pandemic.

Heather Hallett spoke out after England’s chief medical officer warned that the threats and intimidation risked dissuading experts from helping in a future crisis.

Chris Whitty was speaking from experience because a Covid obsessive forced him into a headlock in a park in June 2021.

Lady Hallett said at the conclusion of his evidence yesterday: ‘It’s wrong for so many reasons, but I do know how distressing it can be so I hope that people will think twice – but of course they never do, do they? – before committing themselves to distressing acts unnecessarily.

‘There are so many different ways to express different opinions, why do we have to have personal abuse?’

Heather Hallett spoke out after England¿s chief medical officer Chris Whitty (pictured) warned that the threats and intimidation risked dissuading experts from helping in a future crisis

Heather Hallett spoke out after England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty (pictured) warned that the threats and intimidation risked dissuading experts from helping in a future crisis

Chris Whitty was speaking from experience because a Covid obsessive forced him into a headlock in a park in June 2021

Chris Whitty was speaking from experience because a Covid obsessive forced him into a headlock in a park in June 2021

Sir Chris did not reference being accosted or abused when asked to comment on potential problems relating to experts making themselves available to assist in the pandemic.

Flu deaths hit a five-year high 

More than 14,500 flu-associated deaths were recorded in England in the 2022/23 season, estimates show.

The figure is the highest recorded for five years, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

A further 5,500 deaths are likely to be linked to extreme cold weather – the highest number for a decade.

The NHS faced pressure on three fronts last winter, with very cold temperatures joined by a surge in Covid-19 infections and the first major wave of flu since the pandemic.

Experts said the disease had a bigger impact due to ‘lower population immunity’, with little or no flu circulating in the previous two winters when Covid measures were in place.

The number of flu-associated deaths was estimated at 14,623 according to the UKHSA.

But he told the hearing in London that the level of abuse and threat to volunteers was ‘extremely concerning’. He added: ‘We should be very firm in saying that society very much appreciates the work of these people who put in enormous amounts of time. Usually at no recompense.’

Hugo Keith KC, lead lawyer for the inquiry, asked Sir Chris what could be done to stop the ‘disgraceful behaviour’. Sir Chris replied: ‘The main thing is to make sure the people who do this appreciate and understand that their work is very thoroughly appreciated by the great majority of the population, which I think it is.’

Lady Hallett said that she was ‘astonished and sorry’ to hear about the abuse. Jonathan Chew, 24, was jailed for eight weeks and ordered to pay £1,058 in costs and compensation after admitting harassing Sir Chris and obstructing a police officer.

Sir Chris began his evidence by describing how he saw first hand the effects of the pandemic while working in hospitals. He said: ‘I saw the extraordinary impact and devastation for individuals and their families.’

He admitted the UK did ‘not have the ability to scale up’ quickly to deal with the pandemic in areas such as testing.

And he said there was a lack of ‘radical’ thought in the way experts considered the potential for pandemics other than flu-based health crises. He added: ‘The system is very good at what it does, but we should recognise that there is a gap in the system.’

Matt Hancock, health secretary during the pandemic, has been called to give evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday. Nicola Sturgeon, former first minister for Scotland, appears on Thursday.

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was the Government’s chief scientific adviser from April 2018 to March 2023, told the inquiry a lack of an industrial vaccine base prior to the pandemic was ‘benign neglect’ that led to ‘very significant consequences’ for the country.

He said: ‘You need everyday activities that you can scale quickly and I think this is a part of resilience that needs to be thought through very carefully.’

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