Coronavirus: UK could have ‘halved’ deaths by moving a week earlier

Neil Ferguson, a scientific adviser to No 10, says earlier lockdown would have saved lives

Prof Neil Ferguson. Photograph: Parliament TV/PA Wire

Prof Neil Ferguson. Photograph: Parliament TV/PA Wire


The UK could have saved half the lives lost to coronavirus if it introduced lockdown a week earlier, one of Boris Johnson’s top scientific advisers has told MPs. Neil Ferguson, whose modelling at Imperial College London persuaded the prime minister to impose a lockdown on March 23rd, was giving evidence to the Commons science committee.

“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 reduced the final death toll by at least a half,” he said.

“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 was revealed he had broken lockdown rules to meet a woman who lived in a different household. He had been infected with coronavirus around the same time as Mr Johnson and said he believed he was probably immune afterwards and incapable of passing the infection on.

Mr Johnson declined to comment on Prof Ferguson’s claim that the UK’s death toll, which stood at 41,128 on Wednesday, could have been halved if he had moved to lockdown sooner.

“I know you want me to cast judgment on everything that happened in the months that have gone by – of course that moment will come, and of course we have got to learn lessons – but at this stage it is just premature,” he told a press conference at Downing Street.

Regret on testing

Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance also said it was too early to judge which actions were correct or whether they were introduced at the right time. But chief medical officer Chris Whitty said his biggest regret was that the UK did not introduce widespread testing for the coronavirus earlier.

“I think there’s a long list actually of things which we need to look at very seriously. If I was to choose one it would probably be looking at how we could speed up testing very early on in the epidemic. And many of the problems that we had came because we were unable to actually work out exactly where we were and were trying to see our way through the fog with more difficulty,” he said.

“There are many good reasons why it was tricky but I think if I was to play things again this is largely based on what some other countries were able to do, particularly Germany. ”

Mr Johnson announced a major easing of social-distancing restrictions from next Saturday, when members of single-adult households would be able to form a “supportive bubble” with another household. This will allow the two households to act as if they were one, spending time in one another’s homes, staying overnight and no longer required to remain 2m apart.