Chris Whitty has called out Boris Johnson on live TV, saying the prime minister misquoted him over when the UK will get back to normal.
After a reporter at Friday’s Downing Street press conference put it to Prof Whitty that he had said life will start to return to normal by Easter, England’s chief medical officer rejected this.
“I don't recall I ever personally said it was by Easter,” he pointedly said.
He then added Johnson had been quoting him “rather generously”.
It was in reference to an interview Johnson gave to ITV News on 30 December in which Johnson claimed: “Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, set a sort of terminus of 5 April – Easter – when he thought things would be much, much, much better.”
Contradicting this on Friday, Prof Whitty affirmed he had predicted a more general time frame of spring in which coronavirus restrictions may be lifted. Spring is defined by the Met Office as March, April and May.
He said: "I always said that I thought there was a reasonable chance things would be a lot better in the spring. I don't recall I ever personally said it was by Easter in public, but the PM may have quoted me saying that rather generously.”
Johnson, interrupting, said “there’s a spring after Easter”.
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Johnson has regularly been accused of over-optimism during the pandemic. It was a criticism levelled at him after he was forced to cancel Christmas, for example.
On 16 December, even as it was known coronavirus infections were quickly increasing, Johnson said cancelling the allowance for three households to mix between 23 and 27 December would be “frankly inhuman”… before abandoning the plan three days later.
However, Prof Whitty added he himself remains optimistic the UK is on course to return to normal some time in the spring.
"The general principle is that things are going to improve in the spring, I still think that is very likely.
"Having the new variant makes that harder, there's no doubt about that, but I think what has happened over the last three weeks is we have shown that with everyone working together, we can beat this virus with the current [lockdown] measures and the vaccine will help us to do that... and increasingly take the heavy lifting.”
He warned there will not be a compete lifting of restrictions, but expects things to be “substantially better than they are at the moment”.
The latest figures show 3,234,946 people had received a first COVID-19 vaccine as of Thursday. The government is aiming to reach 14 million by mid-February.
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