Scientists turn on Boris Johnson over UK’s coronavirus response
Top adviser says the country’s death toll could have been halved if it had gone into lockdown one week earlier.
LONDON — The gloves are off as Britain starts to examine its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Boris Johnson on Wednesday insisted it was “premature” to say the U.K. had made mistakes in its response to the crisis, after a top adviser said the country’s death toll could have been halved if it had gone into lockdown just one week earlier.
Neil Ferguson, who led the Imperial College team behind the influential epidemic model that informed U.K. strategy, earlier in the day told MPs the epidemic had been doubling every three to four days before the lockdown was introduced at the end of March.
“Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half,” said Ferguson, who advises the government via the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) and was previously a member of the government’s independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) — before having to resign over a breach of lockdown rules.
But Johnson, speaking at the government’s daily press conference shortly after Ferguson made the remarks, said it was “simply too early to judge ourselves.”
“The tragic reality is Boris Johnson was too slow to take us into lockdown” — Jonathan Ashworth, Labour opposition’s health spokesperson.
“We made the decisions on the guidance of SAGE, including Professor Ferguson, that we thought were right for this country,” he said.
The U.K. government is facing mounting criticism over its handling of the pandemic, specifically that lockdown measures were imposed too late, that testing and protective equipment for medical staff were not widely available quickly enough, and that the government failed to protect vulnerable residents of care homes.
More than 41,000 people have died in the U.K. after testing positive for the coronavirus, far above estimates back in April, including from Ferguson himself, that between 7,000 and 20,000 people might die of the virus. The actual death toll, based on the number of death certificates mentioning the virus, is estimated to be more than 50,000 and is still rising, and the country looks likely to be the worst-affected in Europe.
Seeing through the fog
Jonathan Ashworth, the Labour opposition’s health spokesperson, said the government “must accept they made mistakes and reassure they have learnt lessons.”
“The tragic reality is Boris Johnson was too slow to take us into lockdown, too slow on [personal protective equipment] for health and care staff, too slow on testing and now too slow on putting in place a functional test and trace regime,” he said. Acting leader of the Liberal Democrat party Ed Davey called on Johnson to commit to a full public inquiry into the government’s decisions during the pandemic.
Asked at the press conference to name his biggest regret about the response, Johnson said, “Of course we’re going to have to look back at all of it and learn the lessons that we can,” but insisted there were still “lots of things that we still don’t know and this epidemic has a long way to go, alas, not just in this country but around the world.”
However, his Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty gave a frank response to the same question. “There’s a long list of things we need to look at very seriously,” he said, citing in particular the U.K.’s slowness to increase its testing capacity at the start of its outbreak. “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,” Whitty said.
Ferguson’s comments overshadowed the latest announcement on lockdown easing in England, which will see people living alone and single parents permitted to form a “support bubble” with one other household. Two households in a bubble will no longer have to observe the U.K.’s 2-meter social distancing rule with one another and will be able to stay overnight in each other’s homes.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons science and technology committee on Wednesday, Ferguson also said that government policy “failed” to shield care homes from the infection.
Ferguson had told the same committee at the end of March that according to his modeling, the U.K.’s COVID-19 death toll — which now stands at 41,128 deaths after a confirmed test — would not exceed 20,000.
Asked on Wednesday what had gone wrong, he cited the fact that the epidemic was further advanced in the U.K. in the first two weeks of March than experts had realized, but also the high number of deaths in care homes.
“We … made the rather optimistic assumption that somehow — which was policy — that the elderly would be shielded and particularly the most vulnerable would be shielded as the top priority,” Ferguson said. “And that simply failed to happen.”
Matt Keeling of the University of Warwick, another SPI-M adviser also giving evidence to the committee, told MPs he would “echo Neil’s comments, with hindsight we could have gone into lockdown earlier. One of the main constraints we were facing at the time was the advice that the population at large would resent a very long lockdown. We were almost balancing that against the chaos that a lockdown would cause.”
A third expert, Nicholas Davies of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, concurred, telling the committee, “It’s clear from our own modeling looking back that an earlier lockdown would have been substantially better in terms of the health outcomes we have seen, in terms of deaths.”
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