Sir Jonathan Van-Tam says family were threatened with having throats cut in Covid-19 lockdown

22 November 2023, 16:18

Jonathan Van-Tam
Jonathan Van-Tam. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Sir Jonathan Van-Tam has told the Covid-19 inquiry that his family received death threats during lockdown.

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Sir Jonathan, who was England's chief medical officer during the height of the pandemic, said the "extremely hateful messages" made him consider his government position.

He told the inquiry that he "did not expect my family to be threatened with having their throats cut".

Sir Jonathan added: "I did not expect the police to have to say: 'Will you move out in the middle of the night or in the middle of the evening, whether you might move out for a few days, while we look at this and potentially make some arrests?'"

He said that the family ended up not moving because they didn't want to leave their cat.

Sir Jonathan told the inquiry: "I make this point because I'm so worried that if there's a future crisis, people will not want to sign up for these roles and these jobs, because of the implications that come with them."

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Deputy Chief Medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam during a media briefing in Downing Street
Deputy Chief Medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam during a media briefing in Downing Street. Picture: Alamy

Sir Jonathan, who has since left government for a job in the private sector, said that his workload at the start of the pandemic was "horrendous for all of us".

"At the beginning it certainly was in the kind of 16 hours a day mark and it certainly was seven days a week," Sir Jonathan said. "It was very, very intense."

Sir Jonathan also told the inquiry that lockdown should have happened one or two weeks earlier than it was brought in.

He said: "My kind of instinct reaction was 'not a day too soon'.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I think I reflect that these measures would have all been better certainly seven days earlier than they were, possibly a little longer than that.

Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty
Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty. Picture: Alamy

"So somewhere in the kind of seven to 14 day window, that would have been perhaps a bit more timely."

Sir Jonathan added that "there were things going on the weekend before" the first lockdown in March 2020 that made him "feel much worse than they had previously looked".

"So I think there was an element of a change there that really kind of galvanised hearts and minds," Sir Jonathan said.

Sir Jonathan first raised significant concerns about Covid on January 16 - more than two months before the lockdown.

But he said his former boss, chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty was "entirely right" not to "wake up Sage and wake up Cobra because I was getting a bit excited about something based on instinct" when he raised significant concerns about the new virus on January 16, 2020.

Sir Chris said on Tuesday that "with the benefit of hindsight" the first lockdown measures implemented in March 2020 were "a bit too late".

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Asked about him voicing this view to Sir Chris at this time, Sir Jonathan said: "You get a range of opinions on science, you get a range of opinions on when the data are certain enough to tell you what you're seeing, and then you have to overlay on top of that personalities.

"Much as Chris and I are great friends and very dear colleagues, and I genuinely mean that, we are different personalities and we both say we're different personalities - I'm the one who chases the ball, Chris is the one who would look at the ball first and make a more qualified and thoughtful decision about whether it was worth chasing.

"There is that difference, and I understood entirely that I was conveying my instincts at that point. But I think Sir Chris was entirely right, given his much more profound experience of government that, he knew when to press buttons that I didn't. In any case, I was subordinate to Chris, and I respect the chain of command, so I was perfectly content with the response that I received.

"And it wouldn't have been possible to kind of wake up Sage and wake up Cobra because I was getting a bit excited about something based on instinct and there weren't a lot of data at that point.

"That position changed of course, very quickly, indeed - the data were changing daily at that point. But it was only six days before Sage was enacted for the first time and it was only eight days before Cobra was enacted. So I feel the system was kind of at that point, beginning to kind of work, if you like."

Sir Jonathan Van-Tam also said he first learned about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme on TV and that the programme "didn't feel sensible to me".

Lead counsel to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Hugo Keith KC, asked: "Were you consulted on that scheme? Were you involved in that?

Sir Jonathan replied: "Absolutely not, the first I heard about it was on TV."

When asked what view he would have taken had he been consulted, Sir Jonathan told the inquiry: "Had I been consulted I wouldn't have made any distinction between Eat Out to Help Out and any other epidemiological event that brought different households into close contact with each other for the purposes of socialising, eating and consuming alcohol. \

"The net epidemiological effect, it's kind of agnostic to what's on the menu as it were.

"But I would have said 'this is exactly encouraging what we've been trying to suppress and get on top of in the last few months'. So it didn't feel sensible to me."