Almost 1.5 million people will die in the UK and US if tough controls on social contacts are not introduced to prevent the spread of coronavirus, British scientists have warned.
Researchers from London’s Imperial College said that about 250,000 people could die in the United Kingdom and 1.1 to 1.2 million in the United States unless draconian restrictions on normal life are introduced.
The research from its Covid-19 response team, which has informed the British government’s response to the outbreak, said strict restrictions on normal life could have to continue for at least 18 months until a vaccine is found.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced far tougher measures on movement and isolation based in part on the research.
The strengthened strategy places the UK more closely in line with countries such as Italy, which is currently the worst-affected European state.
Professor Neil Ferguson, the lead author of the paper, told the BBC: “We are left with no option but to adopt this more draconian strategy.”
He said the initial worst-case scenario that a large number of deaths would see health service overwhelmed was an underestimate.
“As information has been gathered in recent weeks from, particularly Italy, but other countries, it’s become increasingly clear it’s not the reasonable worst case, it’s the most likely scenario,” he said.
The research published on Monday suggested that the only viable strategy was a new suppression tactic adopted in China and South Korea would require at least social distancing of the entire population and home isolation of cases.
It says that it may need to be supplemented by school and university closures but warned that it could have an impact in forcing doctors and nurses to skip work to care for their children. Without the measures, the study warned, health services could be overwhelmed.
The research said it was not clear even then, if all the measures were followed, whether the tactic would be successful because of the difficulty of keeping it in place for months.
The research team said that if the tactic was successfully employed it could slow the death rate to "a few thousands or tens of thousands" in the UK, the FT reported.
The paper appears to abandon the “herd immunity” tactic promoted by senior government advisers last week to manage the infection rate to stem the rate of transmission.
Mr Johnson told people to stay away from pubs, clubs and theatres, and to avoid all non-essential travel, as the death toll in the UK hit 55. Anyone living in a household with someone who has the symptoms of a persistent cough or fever was told to isolate themselves for two weeks.
His government is also expected to push through new legislation that would allow police to detain people to prevent them spreading the virus.
“Without drastic action, cases could double every five or six days,” Mr Johnson said.