England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, has been harassed four times in recent months, including by anti-lockdown protesters, prompting growing concerns for his safety.
There are calls for Whitty to get police protection following the latest incidents over the weekend when he was targeted in a Westminster park on Sunday, a day after demonstrators gathered outside what they thought was his home and shouted “murderer”.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said he was “shocked at seeing the despicable harassment”, while the home secretary, Priti Patel, criticised the “terrible” behaviour directed at a “remarkable public servant” who is one of the most senior government officials tackling the Covid crisis. Sajid Javid, the new health secretary, also called the abuse “appalling and totally unacceptable”.
Whitty is understood to have dismissed the park incident as “schoolboy behaviour” and said he would not have told anyone if the footage had not already spread online. He has not commented publicly but is said not to want to take the matter any further.
The Metropolitan police confirmed that officers spoke to Whitty after the park incident and checked on his welfare but that he did not want to make any allegations and went on his way.
The force added in a statement: “Officers continued to speak to the two men and recorded their details. They were robustly warned about their behaviour and ordered to leave the area.”
But the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, has called for the “thugs” to face charges.
Video of the incident showed two people filming in selfie mode appearing to manhandle Whitty, while he struggled to get away.
The scientific adviser managed to duck his head under an arm of one of the men holding on to him. As he tried to walk away a man could be heard saying: “Just one photo, please,” while another said: “One photo, mate.”
The men then pulled him back towards them, putting their arms around him as he again attempted to get away.
On Saturday, a group gathered outside what they thought was Whitty’s central London flat, blasting horns and shouting through megaphones from across the street.
A Tory MP, Andrew Bridgen, called for Whitty to be offered police protection, and said politicians rather than advisers “should face the public”.
Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, backed the idea – saying he was surprised Whitty had been walking from building to building alone.
“He is a very senior member of the civil service, he’s been very public facing,” McMahon told Sky News. “We know people who are anti-vaccination, people who don’t believe Covid is real … they do turn a lot of that anger towards Chris Whitty.”
Patel said she was “horrified by what has happened to Chris”, telling Times Radio: “The police are involved as well and we’re speaking to Chris to look at what we can do to support him.”
She suggested he could be offered police protection. When asked if he needed it, Patel said: “It’s important we make sure that Chris is given the right kind of support. It is terrible to see such an important public figure – someone that day in, day out has been serving our country in the way in which he has to keep us safe – being subject to such appalling abuse.”
The two events last weekend came after Whitty was followed down a street by a prominent anti-vaccine activist who yelled at him and called him a “liar”.
In February he was also called a “liar” multiple times while waiting for a takeaway lunch at a street food stall, prompting condemnation when the footage emerged.
Last week, Whitty’s deputy, Jonathan Van-Tam, was confronted in the street outside the Ministry of Defence building by an anti-vaccine activist who accused him of poisoning Matt Hancock.
Footage of the incident, which was shared on Facebook, shows the activist following him and yelling at him. Downing Street condemned the abuse, calling it “appalling behaviour”.