As he chaired the Downing Street press conference on vaccinations for over-12s, Chris Whitty was in his element. Relaxed, poised, occasionally robust, he appeared to relish being given centre stage for once, rather than dragooned as the PM’s unglamorous assistant.
Temporarily spared the role of playing second fiddle to the politicians, this was all about his and other chief medical officers’ (CMOs) conclusions on the vexed issue of jabs for kids. Flanked by his defiantly dry and technical colleagues, Wei Shen Lim of the JCVI and June Raine of the MHRA, Whitty was a veritable live wire, a TV game show host in comparison.
Whitty was no less nuanced than usual, but he was particularly forthright. Given the potential confusion for parents over the JCVI’s most recent advice on the jabs, Whitty was clearly the best person to try to reassure the public that this update was based on medical judgement. Citing various royal colleges, and public health chiefs across the land, added to his case.
Given that some critics are suspicious that children could be used as guinea pigs in an attempt to protect adults, CMO was smart too in stressing that his verdict was narrowly focused on the under-16s alone (while looking at the “wider considerations” than just direct health impacts). That helped Sajid Javid when he later accepted the whole advice.
What was striking was the way Whitty stressed the risk posed to children’s “public health” and “mental health” from further school disruption caused by a lack of vaccination. The idea of a parity of esteem between mental and physical health is still a long way off for many, but this was a welcome rebalancing of the scales in the whole Covid reckoning.
There was cross-party political appeal too in the way he and other medical officers framed their decision, pointing out that a loss of schooling has particularly hit the poorest areas of the country. A key line from their letter to ministers warned that there can be “lifelong effects on health if extended disruption to education leads to reduced life chances”.
The link between poverty, education and health would have more credibility for this government if Sir Michael Marmot hadn’t concluded last year that a decade of austerity had hit life expectancy of the worst off. Similarly, the principle of putting children’s schooling first would have more power if Boris Johnson had not seen his own catch-up czar quit over a lack of funds.
Whitty’s educational case was made even stronger in a later Department of Health document that showed that leaving under-16s unvaccinated this winter would lead to upto 12 million missed school days in the worst case scenario (and 110,000 school days in the best case scenario). Whitty also seemed to ram home the dangers of long Covid, saying “Covid is not a benign disease”.
On the key issue of parental consent, the CMO was smart to underline that none of his advice changed long-established legal precedent. Since the 1980s, the courts have ruled that over-12s can have “competence” to make medical decisions about their own bodies.
And it’s only in a tiny number of cases that parents and children disagree about things like jabs. The key is to make sure no child is “stigmatised either for accepting, or not accepting” the jab, Whitty and his colleagues stressed.
But perhaps the most interesting thing of all about Whitty’s press conference came when he let slip his irritation at questions as to why the experts had taken so long to deliberate. “Anybody who believes that the big risk of Covid is now all in the past, and it’s too late to be making a difference, has not understood where we’re going to head as we go into autumn and winter,” he said.
He said there will continue to be pressure on the NHS and almost certainly disruption in schools. His advice to ministers actually warned the epidemic would “continue to be prolonged and unpredictable...local surges of infection, including in schools, should be anticipated for some time”.
That sounded very much like a warning to the PM and his ministers as much as to the public. When Whitty resumes his supporting role alongside Boris Johnson at the press conference on the government’s new ‘Winter Plan’ on Tuesday, it will be interesting to find out which of them first suggested the idea of Covid certificates for nightclubs. Was Whitty’s advice about clubs as ‘super-spreader’ risks heeded or ignored? Note the idea has not been junked, just kept in reserve.
The whole point of the political pain of last week’s new taxes was to inoculate the government from the charge that waiting lists are soaring, that the NHS is still failing to get the cash it needs, and that ultimately the Tories can’t be trusted with the health service.
But if hospitals are again at breaking point this winter, and the PM is forced into another lockdown he vowed to avoid (working from home and facemasks may not cut cases quickly enough), he’ll be in huge trouble. The BMA warned today of a “frightening” shortfall of 50,000 doctors this winter.
Right now, cases in England are thankfully continuing to fall week on week, but it’s obvious Whitty is nervous, and the level of hospitalisations (much higher than last September) shows why. There’s a real uncertainty among ministers too and with the “vaccine bounce” appearing to have fizzled out in the polls, the PM will be running out of excuses if deaths soar again in coming months