Chris Whitty shut down ITV’s Robert Peston during the Downing Street coronavirus press briefing on Thursday. He asked: “You made the important point that we’ve avoided the reasonable case of 500,000 deaths but by your own chart, the death toll in the UK is possibly the worst in Europe, certainly amongst the worst. As we head into the second phase, what lessons have you learned from that seemingly worrying outcome?”
Chris Whitty replied: “I come from a profession as Patrick Vallance does where learning the lessons after you’ve gone through something is absolutely critical.
“You must learn lessons at the right point but what you don’t do frankly is do that in the middle of something.
“We are nowhere near the end of this epidemic.
“We are through the first phase of this, there is a very long way to run for every country in the world on this.
“I think let’s not go charging in to who has won and who has lost at this point.
“Let’s actually try and take it quite carefully, learning lessons from one another as we go along.”
In the briefing, Mr Whitty said the rate of infection needed to remain below one before the lockdown could be safely lifted.
He said: “There isn’t a perfect answer to what should the R be (to lift the lockdown) but we’re absolutely confident that the wrong answer is anything over one.
“Because as soon as R goes over one, then you restart exponential growth – it may be slow if it is just over one, it may be a lot faster if it goes a lot above one – but exponential growth restarts and, sooner or later – and the higher it is, the sooner it is – the NHS will go back to the risk of being overwhelmed and the number of cases will go up.”
He said “indirect deaths” could go up if the NHS is under strain from Covid-19 and cannot treat people with other ailments and diseases, and said the health service needed “headroom” to continue to carry out urgent cancer care and surgery.
He went on to acknowledge concerns about deaths from other causes increasing because of the coronavirus outbreak.
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“It’s not just cancers, we are very concerned that there has been a fall away in people coming to accident and emergency with things like strokes and heart attacks.
“They must be going on, and one of the worries we have is people are thinking ‘I can’t go to the NHS because it can’t deal with these emergencies’ – it definitely can.”
He added that non-emergency services in the NHS would be “switched on in a responsible way” to ensure that delays are minimised.
Boris Johnson said: “I can certainly say that when it comes to urgent cancer care, people will get the treatment that they need.”
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