Matt Hancock has said he was warned the Covid pandemic could kill hundreds of thousands of people in the UK two months before the government put the country into lockdown.
The former health secretary said the chief medical officer for England Professor Sir Chris Whitty had informed him in January 2020 that in a “reasonable worst case scenario” as many as 820,000 could die.
However he said that when he passed on the warning to fellow ministers at a Cabinet meeting three days later, the reaction was “shrug shrug” as they did not really believe it.
The details are revealed in Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries: The Inside Story Of Britain’s Battle Against Covid, serialised in the Daily Mail and The Mail+. They were released as he returned to Westminster for the first time following his controversial appearance on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!
In the book, Hancock said Sir Chris had warned him on 17 January that there was a “50:50 chance” that the virus, which had broken out in China, would reach Britain.
‘The whole room froze’
Eleven days later, at a meeting with officials, Sir Chris spelled out what that could mean. “In his characteristically understated way, sitting at the back peeling a tangerine, Chris Whitty quietly informed everyone that in the reasonable worst-case scenario as many as 820,000 people in the UK may die. The transmission is so high that almost everyone would catch it,” he wrote.
“The whole room froze. We are looking at a human catastrophe on a scale not seen here for a century.” However when he shared the forecast with a Brexit Day meeting of the Cabinet in Sunderland on 31 January, Hancock said it was met largely with indifference.
“The reaction was somewhat ‘shrug shrug’ – essentially because they didn’t really believe it. I am constantly feeling that others, who aren’t focused on this every day, are weeks behind what’s going on,” he said.