The coronavirus death toll in the UK would be halved if the country had gone into lockdown a week earlier, according to the academic who persuaded Boris Johnson to introduce the measures.
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling helped shape the coronavirus response strategy, said thousands of deaths could have been prevented if the UK had acted sooner.
He told the Commons science and technology committee: “We knew 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.”
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Prof Ferguson, who had to resign from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) in May when his girlfriend breached lockdown rules, was being quizzed on why his original estimates of deaths had been too low.
In response to a question about whether the right decisions were taken at the right time, Ferguson said the right decisions were taken.
But he added: “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.
“Whilst I think the measures, given what we knew about this virus then, in terms of its transmission, were warranted, I’m second guessing at this point, certainly had we introduced them earlier we would have seen many fewer deaths.”
Ferguson said he also agreed with Prof John Edmunds, another epidemic modelling specialist, who said on the weekend that the UK should have gone into lockdown earlier.
Tory chairman Greg Clark asked why Ferguson estimated in March that UK coronavirus deaths would be unlikely to exceed 20,000 – around half of what the current figure is now.
Prof Ferguson said the experts “underestimated how far this country was into the epidemic” at that stage, as infection rates were far higher than anticipated, with heavier “seeding” from countries like Spain.
He said the virus spread more quickly in care homes than anticipated, partly due to lack of shielding for elderly people and partly due to a lack of understanding of the fact that care home staff often work in multiple facilities.
Ferguson said the death toll in care homes could have been halved if there had been proper shielding.
He also told the committee that 90 per cent of cases imported into the country were not caught by border measures in the early stages of the pandemic.