Coronavirus: Ministers fear Chris Whitty will quit if he doesn’t get his way on lockdown

Ministers were accused of being ‘in the grip’ of the Chief Medical Officer on Saturday night amid concerns he could resign or speak out if his push for tough lockdown measures was ignored.

The Government is locked in a fierce debate over which steps to take in the face of a second wave of Covid with increasing concerns about the impact tougher measures will have on the economy.

One source said of Professor Chris Whitty: ‘He only has a medical brief so he doesn’t really consider economic factors. He is very well regarded and there is a fear that if the Government defied his instructions or advice, he would make that known.’

On Saturday night, a source close to Prof Whitty denied he had explicitly, or implicitly, given the impression he would resign.

Ministers were accused of being ‘in the grip’ of Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty amid concerns he could resign if his push for tough lockdown measures was ignored

Despite Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Alok Sharma fighting to protect the economy, Ministers are leaning towards introducing tougher restrictions.

One senior Conservative said: ‘If you speak to the Treasury, people are tearing their hair out.

‘The main problem is we are being driven by an enormous amount of panic by scientists and doctors. Why aren’t we reporting the extra deaths from stroke and heart disease caused by people being afraid of going to hospital?

‘Scientists never concern themselves about the economy. The Government has to stand up to them. But the whole Health department is in their grip.’

A Minister warned last night: ‘The more severe the lockdown, the more severe the economic crisis.’

A source close to a senior Cabinet Minister added: ‘The financial damage that would be caused would affect people’s health too.’

Prof Whitty ‘has to be’ listened to, another source said, ‘because if he resigns, it’s a massive credibility loss for the Government’.

Previous reports that Prof Whitty has threatened to quit were strongly denied by the Government.

Despite this rumours continue to swirl about his hold on Ministers.

‘What he has let them know is – he could go,’ the source said. ‘If he goes, can you imagine what he could say in an interview?’

The advocates of tougher lockdown measures are led by Prof Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Alok Sharma have expressed concern about the impact that tougher coronavirus measures will have on the economy

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Alok Sharma have expressed concern about the impact that tougher coronavirus measures will have on the economy

Steve Baker, the Tory MP who sits on the Treasury select committee, said: ‘We have been asking the impossible of experts. Too many fundamental questions about our liberty have been put on the shoulders of scientists.’

No 10, including the Prime Minister, are ‘absolutely adamant against the national approach’ to lockdown, a Government source said last night. 

However, several Ministers said they thought Mr Johnson’s own brush with death from Covid has made him more cautious.

All care home visits are to be monitored 

Visitors seeing loved ones in care homes will be supervised at all times to ensure social distancing, according to new coronavirus guidelines.

The Government’s winter plan, announced on Friday, advises homes to limit residents to a single constant visitor wherever possible, with an absolute maximum of two when needed.

Official advice is that meetings should be socially distanced and take place outside or in a well-ventilated room.

It means local directors of public health will have the discretion of allowing visitors – although they will have to stop if an area is deemed ‘at risk.’

Free personal protective equipment (PPE) will also be provided in care homes until at least next March.

‘You are likely to end up with the rule of six plus ‘stay at home’ again,’ a source familiar with the discussions said. 

‘The view shared by the majority of the Health people is, you’re not going to get people to go shopping if they think they’re going to catch Covid.

‘Keeping stuff open won’t save the business. Keeping stuff open when people are confident enough to go is what saves the business.’ 

Meanwhile, those in the anti-lockdown group favour an approach that focuses on isolating the vulnerable while keeping the economy going. 

One said: ‘The fundamental strategy has to be to keep the vulnerable away. You would make that guidance to stay home, you don’t force people. Families are not dumb. Families care about their grandad who’s got kidney disease. Either they are all careful, or they don’t go and see grandad.’

But the ‘health hawks’ said this is not a viable option because it affects too big a group. There are also concerns that NHS letters to the vulnerable were ‘not that accurate’ in selecting them.

The source said: ‘You’d basically have to lock up anyone receiving a pension. Then you would get people saying, I’m not doing that. You end up p***ing them off, and then they’re not going to do it anyway.’

Meanwhile, Conservative backbenchers unhappy with lockdown measures are increasingly focusing on a vote on September 30 on extending legislation that gives the Government power to bring in measures.

MPs including Sir Desmond Swayne are expected to call for Parliament to be given more say over imposing measures.

One Tory MP said last night: ‘Matt Hancock is part of the problem. He is completely gripped by this, there is a messianic feel about it now.’

Last night, a Department of Health spokesman said: ‘The claim that the Chief Medical Officer has threatened to resign at any point is categorically not true.’