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Internal email show Patrick Vallance ‘told off’ by Chris Whitty as he demanded lockdown

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The chief scientific adviser wrote that he argued for lockdown but had been given a dressing down by chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Mark Sedwill, who was Cabinet Secretary at the time. Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty quickly became well known public figures when they repeatedly flanked Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the daily press conferences held at the height of the crisis.

They presented a united front as they answered repeated questions about the response to the virus.

But an email, below, released to the BBC under freedom of information laws revealed there were clashes behind the scenes.

Some scientists had argued for an earlier lockdown and claim thousands of lives could have been saved.

But the government feared imposing the draconian measures too soon would be harmful because the public would tire of the restrictions.

In an email discussing criticism in May of the timing of lockdown in March, Sir Patrick wrote that he “argued stronger than anyone for action for lockdown” but received a “telling off” from the two other key officials.

In July, Sir Patrick referred to advice given by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on 16 March for “additional social-distancing measures” to be implemented “as soon as possible”.

But the country was not put into lockdown until 23 March.

The Department for Health and Social Care insists there was no delay in locking down and said minutes of meetings at the time show there were no splits on the “substance”.

A government spokesman said: “As recorded in the Sage minutes there was no disagreement on the substance of the scientific advice to ministers.

“This is a new virus and at every stage, we have been guided by the advice of world renowned scientists.

“There was no delay to lockdown. Sage advised on March 16 that further measures should be introduced as soon as possible.

“Our response ensured the NHS was not overwhelmed even at the virus’ peak, so that everyone was always able to get the best possible care.”

Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty have both continued to lead the expert advice to the government on how to deal with coronavirus.

The two men are behind the new “rule of six” limit on social gatherings that came into force yesterday.

They advised urgent action needed to be taken after seeing a significant rise in the  number of daily COVID-19 cases.

Infections among young people are causing particular concerns with fears they are becoming less cautious in their behaviour.

The national R number, the rate of reproduction of the disease, is now above one, which means it is spreading faster than the government had hoped.

But scientific experts from Oxford University said the rule of six should be “binned”.

Professors Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson, said the law is “disturbing” and has “no scientific evidence to back it up”.

“It is a disturbing decision that has no scientific evidence to back it up, and may well end up having major social consequences,” they said.

The academics warned the law “could well be the policy that tips the British public over the edge, for it is a disturbing decision that has no scientific evidence to back it up and may well end up having major social consequences”.

“At its core, the decision to restrict gatherings belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what is happening with coronavirus in Britain.”

But Health minister Lord Bethell defended the changes and insisted the new rule was simpler to understand.

He warned making the law as clear as possible is vital in the fight against the spread of the disease.

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A coronavirus second wave would lead to “tens of thousands of deaths”, the NHS would be “challenged” and the economy would be “shut down”, he said.

Lord Bethell said the public understands the simpler rules, Lord Bethell said.

“We think we are on the right track,” he added.

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