Lockdown a week earlier ‘would have halved coronavirus death toll’

“Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, said that thousands of lives had been lost because the government, and the scientists advising it, did not realise how many people were already infected in early March.

“He also suggested that a similar scale of deaths resulted from infections in care homes being four times higher than everywhere else, insisting that scientists had urged ministers at the time to test residents and staff…

“Boris Johnson insisted it was “premature” to judge whether the government should have done things differently.

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor www.thetimes.co.uk 

Britain’s coronavirus death toll could have been halved by imposing lockdown a week earlier, one of its architects has acknowledged.

Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, said that thousands of lives had been lost because the government, and the scientists advising it, did not realise how many people were already infected in early March.

He also suggested that a similar scale of deaths resulted from infections in care homes being four times higher than everywhere else, insisting that scientists had urged ministers at the time to test residents and staff.

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, conceded yesterday that the slow increase in testing capacity was his key regret about the early stages of the epidemic. He said there were a “long list of things” that could have been done differently but if he were to choose one “it would probably be looking at how we could [have speeded] up testing very early on”.

He said at the Downing Street coronavirus briefing: “Many of the problems that we had came because we were unable to actually work out exactly where we were, and we were trying to see our way through the fog.”

Boris Johnson insisted it was “premature” to judge whether the government should have done things differently. He said a lot more was known now about the virus than in March and “we made the decisions at the time on the guidance of [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies], including Professor Ferguson.”

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, also avoided accepting blame on behalf of the government when questioned yesterday about Mr Ferguson’s remarks on ITV’s Peston. “There will be a time when we need to look at the lessons,” he said.

Rory Stewart, the former Conservative cabinet minister, was one of the most prominent voices arguing for a swifter lockdown in March. He told Today on Radio 4 it was “right that they did follow the scientific advice, but it’s also true, I believe, that from the end of February they should have been challenging it harder on the basis of what they could see was happening elsewhere.”

Professor Ferguson was a key member of Sage until forced to resign for breaking lockdown rules to meet his lover. He contradicted Mr Johnson’s mantra yesterday that ministers had taken the right decisions at the time.

“The epidemic was doubling every three to four days before interventions were introduced. Had we introduced lockdown a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half,” he told the Commons science and technology committee.

Acknowledging he was “second guessing” with hindsight, he cited studies suggesting that about 1,500 cases had been imported from Spain and Italy in early March which were not picked up because of a lack of screening at the border. He said deaths were higher than the 20,000 he estimated in March because “we underestimated how far into the epidemic this country was, that’s half the reason”.

Professor Ferguson said modelling of a lockdown had been given to ministers nine days before it was imposed. Last night Channel 4 News reported that a paper advocating lockdown was written for a government modelling group on March 9, two weeks before it was imposed. However, minutes showed that on March 13, Sage was “unanimous that measures seeking to suppress spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak”. On March 16 it advised “there is clear evidence to support [more] social-distancing measures [being] introduced as soon as possible.”

Professor Ferguson said the second and “more avoidable” reason why deaths were so high was that half of them were in care homes. Scientists “made the optimistic assumption that the elderly and the most vulnerable would be shielded as the top priority. That simply failed to happen,” he said.

Sage had told ministers “the only way you can really protect care homes is through extensive testing to ensure infections don’t get in”.

Professor Matt Keeling, of Warwick University, who sits on the scientific pandemic influenza modelling group (SPI-M), a Sage sub-committee, agreed that going into lockdown earlier would have saved lives. He said: “Maybe we should have been jumping up and down and saying ‘has anyone checked care homes?’.” Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said while it was “part of the scientific method” to look at what had gone wrong this should be to learn lessons rather than allocate blame.