‘A class act’: Chris Whitty, the calm authority amid the Covid crisis | Coronavirus

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“Most people would agree that he’s kind of busy,” says Loyd Grossman, whose protracted and extruded vowels defined the mid-Atlantic accent for a generation of TV-watching Britons. “But he seems to wind down by doing more work.”

The quip about Prof Chris Whitty, a household name after dozens of Downing Street press conferences, may not be far off the mark. Beyond his central role in the Covid crisis as England’s chief medical officer (CMO), the 54-year-old made time to teach at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and deliver public lectures at Gresham College, where Grossman is chair.

Whitty did not put his feet up over Christmas. While politicians took a break at the end of a brutal year, he clocked on as an NHS consultant and spent Christmas and new year on the acute medical unit at University College hospital in London. Junior staff were amazed to see him and hugely impressed by his commitment, knowledge and clinical skills, one colleague says. When Whitty Zoomed into an official Covid meeting over the festive period, ministers and civil servants initially peered at the backdrop, wondering where he was – before realising he was at the hospital.

University College hospital in London, where Chris Whitty worked over the Christmas period.
University College hospital in London, where Chris Whitty worked over the Christmas period. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

The crisis has demanded dedication and stamina, but Whitty has also needed the trust of those around him. One of his skills has been to maintain the confidence of politicians and academics – two groups that do not always see eye to eye, Prof David Heymann notes. “That is quite an accomplishment: it takes integrity to satisfy both groups.”

“People trust him because he bases his decisions on evidence. I’ve seen him stick to his principles when he’s challenged. He’s not willing to sell himself off,” adds Heymann, a former chair of Public Health England who is head global health security at the thinktank Chatham House

A former government adviser who saw Whitty in action at the start of the pandemic calls him “a total class act”. The caricature created by lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs of Boris Johnson being bossed around by Whitty and others, is false, he says. “This picture that’s painted of him as someone who throws his weight around is bollocks … he’s not someone who’s always saying, ‘Stop this, stop that.’ His position was always: ‘Here’s my scientific opinion; it needs a political judgment.’”

Boris Johnson (right) and Chris Whitty arrive for a Covid-19 media briefing at Downing Street in February.
Boris Johnson (right) and Chris Whitty arrive for a Covid-19 media briefing at Downing Street in February. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Several of those in Whitehall who have worked with Whitty describe what one calls his “dry sense of humour”, while another says he is, “funny – in an academic way”. One former senior Downing Street insider who worked on the pandemic response agreed: “He is just a decent bloke. Got a few calls wrong at the start, but otherwise was bang on with advice, is very smart, works hard and is just thoroughly decent to people in a high pressure environment.”

Whitty’s supporters are defensive of mistakes in the early days of the outbreak, when he was among those who believed a flu pandemic was the best model for understanding what the UK was facing. They point out that scant evidence was filtering out from China – and say it was better to take decisions than await the fuller certainty that came with time.

The CMO has an understated way of making his views public, perhaps most memorably last September when the prime minister appeared determined to resist a “circuit-breaker”: a decision that appears to have been extremely costly. After failing to convince Johnson of the need to take action, Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, held their own press briefing, offering what at the time appeared to be pessimistic projections of up to 200 deaths a day by November. “For the next six months we have to realise that we have to take this collectively very seriously,” Whitty said, a message apparently aimed at Downing Street as much as the British public. In mid-October, as ministers stuck to the tier system as cases surged, he made clear at a Downing Street briefing that the measures would not suffice. In November, deaths soared to nearly 700 a day.

A Chris Whitty ‘Next Slide Please’ mug.
A Chris Whitty ‘Next Slide Please’ mug. Photograph: Mugs4Gifts

In a year dominated by the crisis, his brand of calm authority appealed far beyond Westminster. The Chris Whitty Appreciation Society Facebook group attracted thousands of followers and mugs bearing his face and the catchphrase “Next Slide Please” became an unlikely hit. Grossman, the proud owner of a Whitty mug, says the CMO became “the rockstar” of the No 10 briefings. “He doesn’t overstate, he doesn’t understate. In a period when everyone is on the verge of hysteria one way or another, there is Chris, not just the voice of knowledge, but the voice of sanity,” Grossman says.

Whitty was born in Gloucester, the first of four sons, and spent much of his early childhood in northern Nigeria. His mother, Susannah, was a teacher, his father, Ken, a British Council official. Whitty was sent to the UK for schooling, first to Windlesham House in West Sussex and then to Malvern College in Worcestershire. Among his early influences was his maternal grandmother, Grace Summerhayes, with whom he sometimes stayed. In 1928 she set up the first maternity hospital in Ghana, one of the first to provide midwifery and obstetric training in Africa. The connection instilled a passion for global health that is still in evidence today.

Before leaving Malvern, a month before he turned 18, Whitty’s father was shot dead in a terrorist attack in Greece. Ken Whitty, then director of the British Council in Athens, was killed by a gunman as he drove home with work colleagues, one of whom also died in the shooting. The murders were claimed by the Revolutionary Organisation of Socialist Muslims, an international terrorist organisation set up by Sabri al-Banna, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Nidal. The attacker apparently mistook Ken Whitty for an MI6 officer he bought a car from.

Chris Whitty read medicine at the University of Oxford but rather than specialising immediately afterwards, he broadened out with an MBA and postgraduate degrees in economics and law, and took academic posts in the UK, Africa and Asia. At 29, he was recruited for a medical registrar post at the LSHTM, beating older, more experienced candidates. “There was something about him,” says David Mabey, a professor of communicable diseases at LSHTM who sat on the interview panel.

Whitty went on to become professor of public and international health at LSHTM and director of the school’s Malaria Centre. There he won a $40m (£29m) grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for malaria research in Africa. Dr Sarah Staedke, who worked with Whitty, describes him as “exceptional” and “very skilled at bringing people together and drawing on their strengths”. He listens, she adds, and is very, very clever. “He is usually 15 steps ahead of everyone else,” Staedke says.

Whitty’s early life was steeped in public service and he entered Whitehall in 2009 as chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Development. He later took the same role at the Department of Health and was acting chief scientific adviser to the government when Russian agents brought the military grade nerve agent novichok to the streets of Salisbury. He became chief medical officer to England in October 2019, two months before Chinese doctors identified the first Covid cases and the world fell into crisis.

For all Whitty’s strengths, some feared his global health background might not suit the detailed scientific data the pandemic would throw up. But those fears were swiftly allayed, says one. “He has a brain like a planet,” they add. “He can handle so many different levels of input from the most global to the most geeky science.”

Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance leave the Foreign Office in London in November.
Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance leave the Foreign Office in London in November. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Whitty and Vallance co-chair the Sage committee that advises ministers on the science behind the epidemic. The meetings are routinely held over Zoom and, with plenty of senior figures involved, they can require a robust hand. Before Covid escalated, Peter Openshaw, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), experienced Whitty’s meeting style firsthand. At one meeting, Openshaw and a senior vaccine researcher were dominating the discussion at the expense of others. Whitty turned to Openshaw, who was waving his hand to make another point, and said: “Peter, I know what you’re going to say and it’s not worth saying.” He did it with charm and “the flicker of a smile” that left Openshaw impressed. “I thought it was great. He’d got the measure of us,” Openshaw says. “He makes sure that those who might not be heard have their voices heard and that those of us more prone to speak up are suitably regulated.”

The pandemic has at times cast light on how Whitty’s perspective as a public health expert differs from that of his political masters. In January, as cases topped 60,000 a day and the NHS faced the worst weeks of the crisis, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told Sky News: “It’s down to people’s behaviour, frankly.” But it was Whitty who praised the “enormous efforts by so many people”, stressing that “virtually everyone” was following the guidance and minimising their contacts. When he was harangued by a teenager as he queued for a Mexican takeaway in London, Hancock called the 15-year-old “pathetic”. Whitty said he thought nothing of it and was sure the boy would “become a model citizen”.

And yet Whitty is at his most devastating when he calls out wrongdoing. In a Gresham lecture on lung cancer last month, he was clear where blame lay for the most common cancer death in Britain. “This is cancer entirely for profit,” he said. “Almost all of the people who get this cancer … have got the cancer, because an extremely wealthy, incredibly sophisticated marketing industry – the cigarette industry – has got them addicted to cigarettes at a young age and kept them addicted the rest of their lives, and then they die. This should never be a cancer blamed on individuals. This is a cancer created by industry for profit.”

Grossman believes such straight-talking is what we need. “The pandemic has generated more bad information and misinformation than the assassination of JFK, the moon landings and 9/11 put together and it’s more important than ever to provide really sound, rigorous information in a way that people can actually understand,” he says.

“Many people of extraordinary knowledge and authority have a tendency to be slightly pompous and self-regarding, and the thing about Chris is he’s very self-effacing. He’s modest about his extraordinary intellectual abilities and he’s a thoroughly decent human being of the type that society desperately needs more of. I wish we could clone him and have hundreds of Chris Whittys.”

When Whitty finally does take a holiday, he will most probably find himself on the Isle of Skye, where he part owns an old schoolhouse. Perhaps anywhere but London will do.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing family and friends, I’ve not seen family and friends for a very long time, like most people,” he told a virtual event last month hosted by the Royal College of Physicians. “I’m really looking forward to getting out of London. I’m in London to work, not because I wish to live in London, and getting out to the hills in England and the mountains in Scotland, that’s a very distant, but very attractive dream.”

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘A class act’: Chris Whitty, the calm authority amid the Covid crisis | Coronavirus

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