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expert reaction to comments by Prof Neil Ferguson at House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

At a House of Commons Select Committee hearing today, Prof Neil Ferguson said instigating lockdown a week earlier in the UK would have reduced the final death toll by at least half.


Prof Simon Wood, Professor of Statistical Science at the University of Bristol, said:

“I think it is too early to talk about the final death toll, particularly if we include the substantial non-COVID loss of life that has been and will be caused by the effects of lockdown. If the science behind the lockdown is correct, then the epidemic and the counter measures are not over.

“The figure of `at least a half’ appears to be based on exponential growth in infections up to lockdown. But if you take the Ferguson group’s published fatal disease duration distribution and the data on deaths with COVID-19 by day (from ONS), then these are also consistent with fatal infections being in decline several days before lockdown, rather than exponentially increasing. Data from other countries also suggests that measures short of full lockdown can halt epidemic growth. These facts suggest a reduced role for full lockdown in saving life from COVID-19, since it appears that pre-lockdown measures may also have played a substantial role in reducing infection rates. So the basis for the `at least a half’ figure does not seem robust, even considering only the immediate deaths with covid-19. If you consider the premature deaths caused by lockdown as well, we will have to wait a long time to know if it saved life.

“The main difficulty pre-lockdown was that decisions were almost completely reliant on modelling, without the solid data on the epidemic size that randomized community testing would have provided.”


Prof Rowland Kao, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The estimates for the epidemic doubling time was already well established in early March when such decisions were being made, and while there would have been some uncertainty as to the impact of a full lockdown at the time, it would have been known that it was highly likely to be sufficient to reduce the reproduction number “R” below one. As such Prof. Ferguson’s comments regarding the possible reduction in COVID-19 related deaths are entirely robust. What’s important to remember now is that, as we ease lockdown restrictions, that same potential for a rapid rise in infections still exists – should we not progress out of lockdown more carefully, the end result will be a rise in fatalities, and the risk of re-entering lockdown at least regionally.”


Prof James Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, & Professor of Structural Biology, University of Oxford, said:

“Professor Ferguson has been clear that his analysis is with the benefit of hindsight. His comments are a simple statement of the facts as we now understand them. 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 UK, like many other countries, struggled to properly understand the true extent of viral infection and were, as a result, slower to act. 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 / trace system should combine to ensure we much better understand any second wave and therefore act much more quickly. It remains my view that the most important thing now is a relentless focus on test, trace and isolation system coupled to investments in vaccines and new medicines. When this disease is behind us, there will have to be a clear-eyed evaluation of what lessons science, media, medicine and government can learn. With over 40, 000 tragedies, no serious person can believe there is not a lot for the UK to learn.”


Comments made at the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on Wednesday 10 June:

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.

Whilst I think the measures, given what we knew about this virus then, in terms of its transmission and its lethality, were warranted, I’m second guessing at this point, certainly had we introduced them earlier we would have seen many fewer deaths.”



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