Britain’s Covid lockdown architect today denied ever calling for the first national stay-at-home order.
Professor Neil Ferguson’s terrifying March 2020 models warned that 500,000 Brits would die unless tougher action was taken to curb the virus’s spread.
It spooked Boris Johnson into adopting draconian restrictions that saw the country told they ‘must stay at home’. Vaccines — considered the only safe route out of the pandemic — were still months away from being deployed.
But Professor Ferguson, who quit his role as a SAGE adviser two months after being caught breaking social distancing rules to meet his married lover, today insisted he didn’t tell officials to plunge the country into a lockdown.
He told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that the situation was ‘a lot more complex’.
Professor Neil Ferguson’s modelling in March 2020 for then Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested 510,000 people in the UK would die due to Covid without drastic action
The epidemiologist drew heavy flak for his team’s modelling on the Covid pandemic. Their work suggested 500,000 Brits would die if nothing was done to stop the spread of the virus (shown in graph) and there would be 250,000 deaths if two-thirds caught Covid
Imperial College London published a paper in March 2020 on the potential impact of coronavirus. It weighed up options on how a lockdown could reduce demand on hospitals
The inquiry is in its second module, which is examining core UK decision-making and political governance.
Hugo Keith KC asked: ‘Do you feel that you did confine yourself to the provision of scientific advice, or did you become, despite your best endeavours, irrevocably involved in determination of policy?’
Imperial College London’s Professor Ferguson, nicknamed ‘Professor Lockdown’ for his infamous modelling, said it was a ‘difficult question to answer’.
He said: ‘I know I’m associated very much with a particular policy.
‘But as you’ll be aware from the evidence I’ve given in my statement and statements of evidence, the reality was a lot more complex.
‘I don’t think I stepped over that line to say “we need to do this now”.
‘What I tried to do was at times, which was stepping outside the scientific advisory role, to try and focus people’s minds on what was going to happen and the consequences of current trends.’
The epidemiologist drew heavy flak for his team’s modelling on the Covid pandemic.
Their work suggested 500,000 Brits would die if nothing was done to stop the spread of the virus and there would be 250,000 deaths if two-thirds caught Covid.
It spooked then-PM Mr Johnson into lockdown. It saw schools, shops and hospitality close, social distancing come into force and Brits only allowed to exercise outdoors once a day.
Experts largely accepted that the economically-crippling measures were vital to control the spread of the virus, as there was no vaccine to prevent severe illness and stunt hospital admissions at the time.
But other epidemiologists and public health scientists shared ‘grave concerns’ about the collateral damages of such policies on the NHS and other parts of society in future.
The wave ended up being much less severe than Professor Ferguson predicted, leading some to call the modelling ‘totally unreliable’.
Others insist that lockdown is why cases didn’t reach the eye-watering levels set out in Professor Ferguson’s models.
He made other gloomy models throughout the pandemic, and later accepted that some were ‘off’.
The UK has logged 230,000 fatalities that have Covid on the death certificate since the pandemic began. Not all of these will have been caused by the virus.
Some 55,500 were logged during the first three months of the pandemic, official figures show.
Despite resigning from his Government role after his rule-breaking affair was revealed, Professor Ferguson continued to sit on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) committee and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG).
It comes after a Government scientist today told the inquiry that Covid deaths in the first wave of the pandemic could have been lower if the UK went into lockdown just two weeks earlier.
Professor Steven Riley, who worked alongside Professor Ferguson at Imperial College London during the pandemic, said lockdown should have been imposed on March 9, 2020.
The infectious disease expert, who now leads the data, analytics and surveillance group within the UK Health Security Agency, said data shows that people began to alter their behaviour on or around March 16, a few days ahead of the stay at home order.
But he said that government action should have been taken sooner.
‘My view is that the first national period of stringent social distancing (lockdown) should have been introduced on or around 9 March 2020,’ he wrote in his witness statement to the inquiry.
Asked to elaborate, he told the inquiry: ‘Once we had lab confirmed deaths in ICUs (intensive care units) with no travel history, no obvious connections to any out of country social networks, even a handful of those would indicate that we would be rapidly progressing in our epidemic.’
He added: ‘We’ve got a lot of data about how social mixing changed over this period and actually on or around March 16 seems to be when everybody did start to change their behaviour.
‘So I think the best way to talk about this is to say: had we achieved that rapid reduction in mixing earlier than the 16th then the peak height would have been lower, and the area under the curve for the first wave would have been less, and potentially quite a bit less.
‘And the area under the curve is proportional to the number of deaths in a very kind of crude but useful way.’
It comes as evidence submitted to the inquiry by a leading think tank suggests that the NHS and social care in the UK is still ‘highly vulnerable to future shocks’ to the system.
The Health Foundation said in a statement that a ‘lack of health service capacity constrained the response to Covid-19’.
‘Without sustained investment in increasing resilience, response to future health threats are likely to be similarly hampered,’ it said.
The UK entered the pandemic with fewer doctors, nurses, hospital beds and equipment compared to similar countries, according to the think tank.
Meanwhile, funding growth for the NHS was ‘severely constrained’ prior to the pandemic.
‘The pre-existing constraints in our health and care system risk prolonging the recovery of services after the pandemic and, without sustained investment, leaves the UK highly vulnerable to future shocks,’ the authors wrote.