Imposing lockdown measures a week earlier last March could have saved “up to 30,000 lives”, a former Government adviser has said.
Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the architects of the first lockdown, said tens of thousands of deaths could have been prevented if Boris Johnson had shut down the country sooner.
His comments came after the PM’s former top aide Dominic Cummings claimed that “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die” because of the Government’s failings.
Cabinet Minister Robert Jenrick denied the claims, saying “we didn’t have all of the facts at the time that the decisions were being taken”.
But as ministers scramble to contain the fall out from the explosive seven hour Commons hearing on Wednesday, Prof Ferguson echoed Mr Cummings concern that the Government had been slow to act.
The Imperial College expert told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Had we locked down a week earlier – I said at the time – we would have saved half the lives, that really equates too, it was much earlier in the pandemic, so it equates to 20,000 to 30,000 lives and I think that’s unarguable.
“I mean the epidemic was doubling every three to four days in weeks 13th to 23rd of March, and so had we moved the interventions back a week we would have curtailed that and saved many lives.”
Prof Ferguson, who advised the Government before quitting for breaking lockdown rules, said scientists became worried in the week leading up to March 13 2020 about the lack of a clear plan.
SAGE experts realised herd immunity would lead to huge number of deaths, with a key meeting was held with the NHS on March 1 “which finalised estimates around health impacts, so the week after that really,” he said.
Prof Ferguson said he “wasn’t privy to what officials were thinking within government”, but added: “I would say from the scientific side there was increasing concern that week leading up to the 13 of March about the lack of clear, let’s say, (a) resolved plan of what would happen in the next few days in terms of implementing social distancing.”
He also warned that the June 21 road map “hangs in the balance” as experts were still concerned about the spread of the Indian variant.
Prof Ferguson said: “The key issue as to whether we can go forward is: will the surge caused by the Indian variant – and we do think there will be a surge – be more than has been already planned in to the relaxation measures?
“So it was always expected that relaxation would lead to a surge in infections and to some extent a small third wave of transmission – that’s inevitable if you allow contact rates in population to go up, even despite immunity – (but) we can’t cope with that being too large.
“In the next two or three weeks we will be able to come to a firm assessment of whether it’s possible to go forward.”
His comments came as Mr Jenrick said he rejected Mr Cummings’ claim that tens of thousands of people died unnecessarily during the pandemic.
Asked directly whether he thinks that claim is wrong, he said: “Yes, I think it is, because you have to remember that we didn’t have all of the facts at the time that the decisions were being taken.
“Nobody, I think, could doubt for one moment that the Prime Minister was doing anything other than acting with the best of motives with the information and the advice that was available to him.”
Mr Jenrick also claimed the PM had handled the pandemic with the “utmost seriousness” and insisted he “has done a great job for the country and deserves our respect”.