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Chris Whitty praises “astonishing” medical and scientific response to Covid

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, has praised the “astonishing” response of the medical and scientific professions since COVID-19 hit in 2020.

Speaking at a milestone event at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM), to mark two years since the first UK lockdown, Professor Whitty said: “What the medical profession has done over the past two years has been astonishing.

“Every area of medicine has been badly affected and people have just behaved in an extraordinary way to protect the public and to protect their patients.”

He added that UK science had made a global impact. He said: “The UK’s scientific response was incredibly excellent. The rest of the world has benefitted from UK research as we have benefitted from other people’s.”

Other speakers at the RSM conference concurred with his sentiment. Professor Hugh Montgomery, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine at UCL, said: “One of our massive strengths is our NHS – it’s extraordinary. You look at other countries that don’t have that mature, integrated system and, if you are poor, you are really left out on the margins.

“We had a very mature academic base in the country, which could swing into action – most countries don’t have that either.”

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, on his final day as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, agreed, saying that we’ve “punched above our weight in the UK on science and data”.

Professor Whitty paid tribute to his deputy as he prepared to leave office. He said: “I normally don’t single out anybody but I can’t let go of the fact that this is the final afternoon of Jonathan Van-Tam, who has been unbelievably good. I just want to say thank you to him in public.”

Not over yet

In a wide-ranging interview with Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Immediate Past President of the RSM, Professor Whitty stressed that Covid is not yet over. He said: “There’s a long way to run ahead of us.

“The waves are still occurring and they will certainly occur.

“This is still a point where we’re under considerable pressure and we I don’t think we should allow anyone to imply otherwise.”

Professor Van-Tam added that worrying about whether people would come forward for their second boosters “keeps me up at night”.

However, Professor Whitty expressed his belief in the British public to make the right decisions. He said: “The extraordinary collective sense of the British public and indeed the public internationally is often underestimated.

“What you’re seeing is the public responding rationally.”

Maintaining capacity

As well as remaining vigilant, Professor Whitty said that we must learn lessons: “We tried to be very open at the beginning that a lot of what we said at the beginning would be wrong.

“We simply didn’t know how much disease there was and where.

“Having the capacity to do widespread surveillance, having the capacity to test people with mild symptoms, that transformed things.

“If you look at every epidemic and pandemic, the thing you really need at the beginning is diagnostic capacity. I really hope we don’t make the same mistake again. Certainly I will be making that point and others will be making that point quite strongly.”

The importance of testing and data was a theme throughout the day.

Professor Dame Clare Gerada, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “Without testing, we are working completely in the dark.”

Fellow panellist Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said she was “very worried” about stopping testing. She said: “If you don’t have the data, it’s very hard to create the policies.”

Professor Van-Tam acknowledged that governments and societies could not sustain forever the huge resources they have put into pandemic preparedness but argued that what mattered more than the amount of funding was its predictability. He called for an end to the “cyclical enthusiasm or non-enthusiasm within governments for investing in that space”.

From left to right Professor Sir Simon Wessely, RSM President Professor Roger Kirby, RSM Chief executive Michele Acton, Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Professor Sir Chris Whitty

Tackling Inequalities

Any lessons learned from the pandemic need to be universally applied and consider everybody, many of the conference speakers agreed.

Professor Gerada said: “If we don’t address inequalities with the same urgency we did Covid, we’re going to be landed with a serious problem in 10 to 15 years.”

Professor Sridhar agreed. She said: “People who were healthy got healthier over the past two years and people who were struggling got into worse health.

“I am worried about the cost-of-living crisis now in Britain. People who can’t afford to heat their homes are not going to be buying fresh fruit. That’s a massive public health issue.”

Professor Montgomery added: “We know that inequity is bad for society. Equitable societies are better for all of us.”

The Royal Society of Medicine has recently launched a major multi-year programme to tackle health inequalities, opening with a flagship conference in June, in partnership with NHS England and NHS Improvement.

About the event

The ‘COVID-19: Two years on’ event marked the 100th episode of the RSM’s long-running and highly regarded COVID-19 webinar series.

Other speakers included:

  • Professor Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford 
  • Professor John Edmunds, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Professor David Heymann, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organisation
  • Andrew Jack, Global Education Editor at the Financial Times
  • Dr Ebere Okereke, Senior Technical Advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
  • Professor Peter Openshaw, Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial College London
  • Professor Sharon Peacock, Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge

The event was opened by Professor Roger Kirby, President of the RSM, and closed by Dr Claire Bayntun, RSM Vice-President.

The RSM’s COVID-19 series was described today by Professor Wessely as an “oral history of the pandemic”. The first episode aired within 10 days of the first UK lockdown and the series has been informing and connecting experts, decision makers and frontline healthcare professionals regularly ever since, racking up 425,000 views.

You can watch previous episodes and a highlights video on the RSM’s YouTube channel.

See the RSM's COVID-19 research timeline

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