The Chief Medical Officer’s role is to offer his expert opinion on the evolving pandemic – and yet he’s under attack for doing just that, says David Oliver

On 16 December, the Spectator magazine’s Katy Balls wrote that “this morning, it’s the Conservative Party versus the scientists, with a number of MPs seeing red following Wednesday’s (15 December) downbeat press conference on the Omicron Variant”.

The press conference in question was one in which England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, had spoken directly to the media.

The following day, the Guardian reported that “Conservative MPs have been taking out their frustration on Prof Whitty “for what they see as his promotion of lockdown by stealth”. The Financial Times reflected similar ire from Tory MPs, with the headline: ‘Conservative MPs Attack UK’s Top Medical Advisor Over COVID Caution’.

In a now deleted tweet, Conservative MP for Beaconsfield Joy Morrissey wrote: “Perhaps the COVID [sic] unelected 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 this is not how democracy works.”

This isn’t the first time during the Coronavirus pandemic that some MPs on the right of the Conservatives, as well as sympathetic columnists or lobbyists with libertarian leanings, have claimed that medical and scientific experts in government roles or official advisory committees have too much influence. Nor is the first time that they have claimed that advisors such as Prof Whitty are too fond of communicating messages to the public that do not reflect the policy position of democratically accountable ministers.

There is a nostrum that ‘advisors advise and ministers decide’. And let’s not forget that the Cabinet Office’s own ‘Enhanced SAGE Guidance’ makes it clear that public sources of technical and scientific advice should be credible and trustworthy.

During a meeting of the Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee on 16 December, Prof Whitty gave an assured, unflappable response to sometimes quite challenging questions by MPs on the rise of the Omicron variant. He explained its likely impacts on public health and NHS demand. His show of expertise, seriousness and grasp of the data seemed to quell the querulous on the committee.

Two days earlier, he had given a closed presentation on Omicron to Cabinet ministers. It was widely reported to be hard-hitting about the risks to the NHS becoming overwhelmed, and the impact of mass staff sickness.

But, despite the advice given, nearly 100 Conservative MPs rebelled against the Government whip in a vote about new Coronavirus measures – a vote passed with Labour’s help.  

On 19 December, the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, criticised the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in the Telegraph for offering “gloomy scenarios” about the impact of Omicron on the UK and on Christmas.

Such “gloomy scenarios” did not, however, prevent a non-announcement the following day, with The Times reporting that the Prime Minister “will not impose more COVID-19 restrictions before Christmas”. The understanding is that the projections presented to the Cabinet by SAGE on Omicron’s likely impact on the NHS did not yet justify a circuit-breaker. The Cabinet reportedly wanted further modelling data.

Personally, I can’t see even the best case scenario changing for the better mere days after Prof Whitty’s first presentation.

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Ethical Codes

What had most triggered the ire of Joy Morrissey and some of her parliamentary colleagues and members of the commentariat was Prof Whitty’s public pronouncements on 15 December that, with more COVID-19 hospitalisations, people should “cut back on their socialising” in the run-up to Christmas.

I can understand why those who are opposed to further restrictions – worried about their impact on individual freedoms or concerned about the economy – might object to Prof Whitty’s statement. Not least because, unlike politicians, doctors and scientists repeatedly top the league of professions the public trust.

But, for an MP to attack and undermine a politically neutral figure in a post that has existed since 1855 and is an integral part of our system of Government, makes me doubt their commitment to the sovereign, democratically accountable legislature and executive they purport to defend.  

The Institute for Government describes the role of “the country’s most senior medical advisor” as having “three overarching responsibilities: to provide independent advice on public health issues, in particular during public health emergencies; to recommend policy changes to improve public health outcomes; and to act as an interface between the government and medical researchers and clinical professionals”.

The Chief Medical Officer, it states, “plays a prominent role in supporting the government’s response to public health emergencies” and, alongside ministers, they are “responsible for keeping the public informed on health issues of high public concern and explaining the government’s response”.

That seems clear enough.

Professor Chris Whitty is a senior, registered medical practitioner who still practices clinical medicine when he gets the chance. He is a senior civil servant of equivalent status to a permanent secretary. He is bound by all three of the General Medical Council ‘Duties of a Doctor’, the Civil Service Code and the seven ‘Nolan Principles’ for ethical conduct by people who hold public office.

The three codes iterate the need for candour, transparency, openness, integrity, independence, and for decisions and advice to be based on the best objective evidence and for a duty of care especially when risks and potential harms might result.

If Prof Whitty had kept his own counsel and piped down – as some have suggested that he should – it would not only conflict with his own job description and the purpose and spirit of his role, but with all three of the professional codes he abides by.


The Need for Expertise

Only three members of the Cabinet have science degrees – although none of them biomedical – and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries started her career as a nurse. Few of the media talking heads who oppose public health protection measures have a scientific, medical or health policy background – not that this dents their confidence.

The need for advice from credible experts, and for humility in seeking help to understand its ramifications, seems clear.

Imagine the counter-factual. Imagine instead taking a road on which the Chief Medical Officer kept his concerns quiet and failed to challenge or speak out – just because his evidence-based, expert-informed advice wasn’t to the liking of politicians, leader writers or broadcast shock-jocks.

People can judge who they think is more committed to our system of government and more keen to protect its integrity – Professor Chris Whitty or his critics. It beggars belief that he is attacked for doing his job properly – whether or not they like what he has to say.

As an acute hospital doctor gearing up for a third Coronavirus wave, I know who I trust.

David is an experienced NHS consultant physician who has worked on Coronavirus wards. He is a columnist for the ‘British Medical Journal’ and has held a variety of senior leadership, academic and policy roles in medicine

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