Threats to independent experts during the pandemic could undermine responses to disasters in the future, Prof Sir Chris Whitty has warned.
Giving evidence to the Covid public inquiry, England’s chief medical officer, Sir Chris, said abuse and threats aimed at experts had been “extremely concerning”.
A second received a suspended sentence.
During the hearings into the two men the courts were told how one man, Jonathan Chew, 24, started filming Sir Chris on his phone while another, Lewis Hughes, also 24, grabbed him in a headlock.
The footage, lasting about 20 seconds, was widely shared on social media and showed the pair jeering as Sir Chris attempted to break free.
England’s chief medical officer was not injured in the attack during the summer of 2021.
As well as the incident, Sir Chris and others have reported being abused on social media, as well as being shouted at in public.
Sir Chris told the inquiry: “We should be very firm in saying that society very much appreciates the work of these people [experts and scientists], who put in considerable amounts of time.”
He said it was often provided without pay and also noted how universities were becoming stricter about releasing their academics.
Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett said she was “astonished and sorry” about what had happened.
After Sir Chris had finished giving evidence on Thursday into how well prepared the UK was for the pandemic, she said: “It’s wrong for so many reasons, but I do know how distressing it can be.
“I hope that people will think twice but of course they never do before committing themselves to distressing acts unnecessarily.
“There are so many different ways to express different opinion. Why do we have to have personal abuse?”
During the rest of his evidence, Sir Chris said one of the key weaknesses the UK faced was the inability to scale up testing quickly.
And he described the national lockdown as the “very big new idea” of the Covid pandemic and “very radical thing to do”.
“It was an extraordinarily major, social intervention with huge economic and social ramifications.”
Sir Chris also defended the government scientific advisory group Sage, which he co-chaired during the pandemic, after suggestions there was not enough diversity of thought within the group.
There were no economic or social experts for example.
But Sir Chris said it would have been too “unwieldly” if a range of different experts were added to it.
Instead, he said the economic and societal consequences of responding to a pandemic should be done separately through a different mechanism.
Meanwhile, Sir Patrick Vallance, who was the government’s chief scientific adviser during the pandemic, said it was a “regret” that during the pandemic it often took a long period of time for Sage research to be published.
“I believe that scientific advice should be made public – that’s beneficial for everybody,” he said.
He added it should always be open to “scrutiny, comment and challenge”.
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