LONDON — The U.K.’s coronavirus death toll could have been halved if the country had introduced lockdown measures just one week earlier, one of the government’s own advisers said.
Neil Ferguson, who led the Imperial College team behind the influential epidemic model that informed Boris Johnson’s government’s strategy, told MPs that the epidemic had been doubling every three to four days before lockdown was introduced at the end of March.
“Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half,” said Ferguson, who advises the government via the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) and was previously a member of the government’s independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) — before having to resign over a breach of lockdown rules.
“While I think the measures — given what we knew about this virus then in terms of its transmission and its lethality — were warranted, certainly had we introduced them earlier we would have seen many fewer deaths,” he added.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons science and technology committee on Wednesday, Ferguson also said that government policy “failed” to shield care homes from the infection.
Ferguson had told the same committee at the end of March that according to his modeling, the U.K.’s COVID-19 death toll — which now stands at 41,128 deaths after a confirmed test — would not exceed 20,000.
Asked on Wednesday what had gone wrong, he cited the fact that the epidemic was further advanced in the U.K. in the first two weeks of March than experts had realized, but also the high number of deaths of in care homes.
“We … made the rather optimistic assumption that somehow — which was policy — that the elderly would be shielded and particularly the most vulnerable would be shielded as the top priority,” Ferguson said. “And that simply failed to happen.”
Matt Keeling of the University of Warwick, another SPI-M adviser also giving evidence to the committee, told MPs he would “echo Neil’s comments, with hindsight we could have gone into lockdown earlier. One of the main constraints we were facing at the time was the advice that the population at large would resent a very long lockdown. We were almost balancing that against the chaos that a lockdown would cause.”
A third expert, Nicholas Davies of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, concurred, telling the committee, “It’s clear from our own modeling looking back that an earlier lockdown would have been substantially better in terms of the health outcomes we have seen, in terms of deaths.”