Coronavirus: UK death toll could have been halved if government acted sooner

Former Whitehall adviser Prof Neil Ferguson says UK lockdown one week earlier would have saved tens of thousands of lives

FILE PHOTO: Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson speaks at a news conference in London, Britain January 22, 2020, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS TV via REUTERS/File Photo

The UK’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic could have been halved if lockdown measures were introduced only a week earlier, a leading British epidemiologist said on Wednesday.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a former member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which plays a central role in shaping the government’s response to the crisis, told British politicians the country had taken the right measures, but had acted too late.

Britain’s official death toll from confirmed cases of Covid-19 is now more than 41,000, making it Europe’s highest. When suspected cases are included, the tally rises to more than 50,000.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced lockdown measures on March 23 but has faced criticism for failing to act quickly enough in the early stages of the country’s outbreak.

"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," Mr Ferguson said.

Together with colleagues at Imperial College London, Mr Ferguson produced an influential model that influenced the government’s response to the outbreak and warned hundreds of thousands of people could have died if the virus were allowed to spread unchecked.

The Imperial College report was widely credited with dissuading the government from pursuing a ‘herd-immunity’ strategy, allowing the virus to spread through the population to enable people to build up resistance to it.

Mr Ferguson’s revised estimate, which came after sweeping lockdown measures were introduced, predicted that around 20,000 might die.

This estimate proved inaccurate because care home residents were not successfully shielded from the outbreak, he said.

Mr Ferguson, who became well-known in the UK after appearing in several daily government briefings on the virus, stepped down from Sage after newspapers reported he had broken lockdown rules to meet a female friend.

Britain, which is suffering Europe’s worst outbreak of the virus, recorded 245 further deaths on Wednesday, for a total of 41,128.

The country is slowly being allowed out of lockdown, with many shops allowed to reopen next week.

The overwhelming majority of parents kept their children at home when schools reopened for younger pupils in England last week, and the government is under renewed pressure to allow pupils of all ages to return to education.