One of Boris Johnson’s former top scientific advisers on the coronavirus outbreak has said the UK’s death toll could have been halved had the lockdown been introduced a week earlier.
Neil Ferguson, whose study at Imperial College in mid-March persuaded ministers to impose an aggressive lockdown strategy, said putting in place stringent measures earlier would have “seen many fewer deaths”.
The prime minister is facing growing scrutiny over his handling of the pandemic after the UK death toll surpassed 40,000. A total of 40,883 people have died as of June 9, while the total number of excess deaths — those above the average of the previous five years — has topped 60,000.
Appearing before the Commons science committee, Prof Ferguson said: “The epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced. So had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have then reduced the final death toll by at least a half.”
He added: “Whilst I think the measures, given what we knew about this virus then, in terms of its transmission and its lethality, were warranted, I’m second guessing at this point. Certainly had we introduced them earlier we would have seen many fewer deaths.”
Prof Ferguson resigned from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) last month after it emerged he had broken lockdown rules at least twice to meet a lover.
Responding to the professor’s comments, Mr Johnson told the daily Downing Street briefing on Wednesday that he had nothing to add to the views of members of Sage and “all such judgments will need to be examined in the fullness of time”.
Prof Ferguson leads the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team and co-authored many of the group’s papers that Sage has considered during its meetings.
His study in mid-March warned that the UK’s coronavirus strategy would overwhelm the NHS and result in more than 500,000 deaths unless stringent social distancing measures were introduced.
He also admitted the UK’s modelling had “frankly” underestimated how far into the epidemic it was when the lockdown was imposed in March.
In the first two weeks of March, he said “we probably had 1,500 to 2,000 infections imported from Italy and Spain, which we just hadn’t seen in the surveillance data, until that point. So there is much heavier seeding than we’d expected.”
The professor said: “The key things to determine number of deaths is at what point in your local epidemic you trigger interventions — how far in are you when you shut down transmission.
“And we frankly had underestimated how far into the epidemic this country was, that’s half the reason.”
He added that advisers had not expected to see the number of deaths in care homes the UK has witnessed because it was assumed residents would be shielded. “That simply failed to happen,” he told MPs.
“We were all working under the assumption that it was government policy at the time that care homes would be shielded from infection, and what we've actually seen is infection rates that are four times higher than the general public in a very vulnerable population,” he said.
Following Mr Ferguson’s resignation from Sage in early May, the health secretary Matt Hancock said he had been left “speechless” by the professor’s “extraordinary” breach of the lockdown.
Weeks later Mr Hancock defended the prime minister’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, over allegations he too broke the government’s own lockdown rules.
Matt Keeling, professor of mathematical epidemiology at Warwick and a member of a Sage subcommittee, also told MPs on Wednesday that he agreed that with hindsight the UK “could have gone into lockdown earlier”.
He also suggested there was an “assumption that lockdowns were going to have to be short” because the public would resent a long period of restrictions.
Prof Keeling admitted that scientists had “very limited” data on care home numbers and that more attention had been directed at hospitals at the start of the crisis.
“It was mentioned, we thought about it and said ‘Care homes are important’, and we thought they were being shielded and we probably thought that was enough,” he said.
“Maybe we should have been jumping up and down and saying ‘Has anyone checked care homes, has anyone checked care homes this week, can anyone tell us what’s happening?’ but I think there was just a lot of focus at an incredibly busy time.”
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