Earlier lockdown could have halved the UK coronavirus death toll - here’s why

Prof Ferguson claimed thousands of deaths could have been prevented with earlier action (Photo: Getty Images)

More than 41,000 deaths from coronavirus have been recorded in the UK, but imposing lockdown earlier could have cut the number by half, an expert has claimed.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Prof Neil Fergusen, whose advice was crucial to the government’s decision to enter lockdown, has said thousands of deaths could have been prevented with earlier action.

Why wasn’t lockdown imposed sooner?

The professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London has told the Science and Technology Committee that the death toll could have been halved had it been introduced a week earlier.

The former government adviser said that the outbreak had been doubling in size every three to four days before any measures were taken.

However, he explained that given what was known about the virus at the time in regard to transmission and fatalities, the actions that were taken were warranted.

Prof Ferguson said: "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.

"So whilst I think the measures, given what we knew about this virus then in terms of its transmission and fatality, were warranted, certainly had we introduced them earlier we would have seen many fewer deaths."

The Imperial College Covid-19 response team called for a full-scale lockdown in a paper on 16 March, seven days before it was implemented in the UK.

However, the Health Secretary has since defended the government’s decision to not impose UK lockdown earlier than it did, stating that it “took the right decisions at the right time”.

Matt Hancock denied that any lives had been lost due to not enforcing lockdown sooner, or that any mistakes had been made, stating that all decisions were guided by scientific advice.

Why is the UK death toll so high?

The government imposed lockdown in the UK on 23 March, in an effort to help prevent further spread of coronavirus.

In the early stages of the outbreak, health experts had estimated that the virus death toll would be unlikely to exceed 20,000, but has since reached more than 41,100.

When questioned what had gone wrong, Prof Ferguson said that in the first two weeks of March, there were between 1,500 and 2,000 infectious cases of coronavirus entering the UK from Spain and Italy, which had not been seen in the surveillance data until that point.

As such, it resulted in a “much heavier seeding” than was expected, with experts underestimating how far into the epidemic the UK was at the time.

Prof Ferguson told the committee that despite border screening being in place at the early stages of the pandemic, around 90 per cent of cases imported into the country were missed because checks were not being conducted on people arriving from Europe.

He noted that Spain and Italy both had large epidemics before they realised, and the UK was unaware of the scale of transmission in Europe as a whole.

James Naismith, professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford, added: "During the exponential phase of the virus, even a few days can make a big difference.

“The UK's significantly higher death toll than Germany is most likely down to difference in the timing of the lockdown.

"The brutal truth is we lacked the testing capability as the virus took hold here. The increased testing capability now on stream and the developing track and trace system should combine to ensure we much better understand any second wave and therefore act much more quickly."

While the high death toll has partially been attributed to a lack of data, Prof Ferguson also noted that around half of the deaths occurred in care homes - a fact which he believes could have been avoided.

He explained: “We did all this working under the assumption, which was government policy at the time, that care homes would be shielded from infection.

"We also made a rather optimistic assumption that somehow - which was policy - that the elderly would be shielded, the most vulnerable would be shielded as the top priority. And that simply failed to happen."