Coronavirus death toll 'would have been at least 50% lower' if lockdown started a week earlier

Professor Neil Ferguson said that an earlier lockdown could have prevented tens of thousands of deaths (ParliamentTV)

Introducing lockdown a week earlier would have reduced the UK’s coronavirus death toll by at least half, according to Professor Neil Ferguson.

Prof Ferguson, who was one of the government’s key scientific advisers when lockdown was imposed on 23 March, said scientists underestimated how far the epidemic had spread in the weeks beforehand.

He told MPs on Wednesday: “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.”

However, Prof Ferguson – who last month resigned from his advisory role after it emerged he had breached lockdown rules to see his “married lover” before meetings between members of different households were permitted – said that based on what was known about transmission and fatalities at the time, the measures were warranted.

However, he reinforced his point that had they been introduced earlier, there would have been fewer deaths.

The UK currently has the second highest COVID-19 death toll – 40,883 as of Tuesday – in the world.

The prime minister, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance were all asked about Ferguson’s comments at the daily press coronavirus press conference on Wednesday.

Prof Whitty and Sir Vallance said lessons would have to be learned from the response to the pandemic.

Johnson did not directly answer Ferguson’s claims. 

Prof Whitty said he regretted the ways the UK had carried out testing at the beginning, saying: “If I was to play things again.. I think that's the one thing we would have put more emphasis on at an early stage.”

He added the country was not at the end of the crisis but in the middle of it.

Appearing before the House of Commons science and technology committee, Prof Ferguson was asked what lessons could be learned.

He said: “Focus on where transmission is happening is absolutely critical for coming out of lockdown.

“We want to be in a position where we can identify clusters of infections very rapidly and impose locally targeted interventions.

“For multiple reasons, we weren’t in a position to do that in March. We didn’t have the testing, or the understanding of transmission.

“But we are in a better basis to do it now.”

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