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Boris Johnson says UK took ‘right decisions’ on lockdown as ex-adviser claims deaths could have been halved

Professor Neil Ferguson was an adviser to the government when lockdown began (Parliament TV)

4 min read

Boris Johnson believes ministers made decisions that were “right for this for this country” as a former government scientific adviser said Britain could have seen “many fewer deaths” if lockdown had been imposed a week earlier.

The Prime Minister said he would not “cast judgement now on everything that happened in the months that have gone by” after Professor Neil Ferguson said scientists had underestimated how fast the virus was spreading.

Speaking to the Commons science committee, Professor Ferguson, who was a key adviser to the Government when lockdown began in March, 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.”

He added: “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.”

Professor Ferguson estimated that the total death toll caused by Covid-19 would be around 50,000, suggesting that as many as 25,000 lives could have been saved if lockdown had been imposed earlier.

He was a key member of the Sage advisory group before being forced to step down from his role after it was revealed he broke lockdown rules.

As of Tuesday, the UK death toll currently stands at 40,883, making it the second-highest in the world after the United States.

Pressed on that claim at the daily Number 10 press conference, Mr Johnson said: “We made the decisions at the time on the guidance of Sage, including Professor Ferguson, that we thought were right for this country.

“And I think that the questions that are posed are still unanswered. And there's a lot of data that we still, frankly, do not have.”

And he added: “I know you want me to to cast judgement now on everything that happened in the months that have gone by. 

“I just think that of course that moment will come and of course we've got to learn lessons. 

“But I just think that it is at this stage premature. There's still too much that we don't know.

And Professor Chris Whitty, the Government’s chief medical officer, said of Mr Ferguson’s evidence: “We both come from a trade where looking back and working out what you would have done, knowing what you now know is absolutely routine and it's how you improve on what you do.”

But he added: “Part of the problem we had at that stage was that we had very limited information about this virus.

"There is still a lot we don't know but we know a lot more now.”


Professor Ferguson had also told MPs on Wednesday evening that a focus on “where transmission is happening” would be “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,” he said.

“For multiple reasons, we weren’t in a position to do that in March.”

He also argued that care homes had not been adequately protected from the virus, and that ministers had been too slow to respond to outbreaks.

The former adviser said: “The policy has always been to protect care homes and to protect the elderly. The policy has been clear in that sense. This is not unique to this country."

But he added: “The policy has simply failed to be enacted until very recently, and there are multiple causes for that.”


Speaking alongside the Prime Minister at the daily press conference, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, struck a cautious note on the further easing of any lockdown measures. 

He said: “The R [virus reproduction] rate is below one, but perhaps only just below one. The epidemic is shrinking, but not fast. Numbers are coming down, but they're not yet very low.

“And the vast majority of the population remains susceptible to this infection. That urges caution, it urges going slowly with changes.”

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