Locking down UK one week earlier 'could have saved 20,000 lives' says Professor Neil Ferguson

Introducing UK lockdown a week earlier could have reduced the number of deaths by at least half, former government adviser Professor Neil Ferguson has said.

The stark claim by Prof Neil Ferguson that thousands of lives could have been saved intensified the pressure on the government over its handling of the outbreak.

Appearing before the Science and Technology Committee, Professor Ferguson estimated the final death toll in the UK from the so-called “first wave” of the virus – which is now over 40,000 – could have been closer to 25,000 if lockdown was enforced in mid-March.

Prof Ferguson said he believed that, in the first two weeks of March, the UK “probably had 1,500 to 2,000 infections imported from Italy and Spain, which we just hadn’t seen in the surveillance data” until later.

He added: “The key things to determine number of deaths is at what point in your local epidemic you trigger interventions – how far in are you when you shut down transmission.

The prime minister insisted it was “premature,” to make judgments about the government’s approach, and said he had taken the steps “that we thought were right for this country”, on the basis of scientific advice.

But this position came under further scrutiny when the chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, was asked about his regrets about the handling of the crisis so far.

“I think there’s a long list of things that we need to look at very seriously,” he said.

Both he and the prime minister were put under intense pressure after the intervention of Ferguson, who leads the influential outbreak modelling group at Imperial College, London. He sat on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) during the early stages of the outbreak.

The government put a nationwide lockdown in place across the UK on 23 March – more than seven weeks after the first confirmed Covid-19 case in the country.

Scientists at Imperial College and a second team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine modelled the impact of lockdown in February. But it was the realisation that the size of the epidemic was doubling every four days and greater clarity over the severity of the illness that prompted Sage to recommend lockdown.

According to Ferguson, it was around nine days after that modelling, which was only one stream of information ministers were reviewing, that lockdown was announced.

The Prime Minister announced the new rules amid mounting pressure to follow other European countries in enforcing very strict social distancing rules

The peak in the number of official Covid-19 deaths came just over three weeks later, around mid-April.

Early in the outbreak, experts had estimated that the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK would be unlikely to exceed 20,000.