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Matt Hancock Was Warned Of 'Reasonable Worst-Case Scenario' Of 820,000 UK Deaths At The Start Of Pandemic

3 min read

Matt Hancock has claimed a reasonable worst-case scenario for the pandemic showed there could be as many as 820,000 deaths in the UK.

The Health Secretary has insisted the UK's approach to the pandemic in the early months of 2020 was based on an "reasonable worst-case scenario" which showed more than 800,000 people could die from the virus.

Speaking at a joint Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee hearing this morning, Hancock said the model was based on the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918 which killed an estimated 17-100 million people worldwide.

The health secretary said the scenario was presented to the government's emergency Cobra committee in early January, just weeks after the first cases had been identified in China. Boris Johnson missed several key Cobra meetings at the start of the pandemic. 

"I asked for a reasonable worst-case scenario in January," Hancock said.

"I was given the planning assumption based on Spanish flu and signed off at Cobra on 31 January – the reasonable worst-case scenario was 820,000 deaths.

"I was determined that would not happen on my watch."

He added: "In the middle of February the scientific advice confirmed that the reasonable worst case scenario... was as bad as Spanish Flu.

"Throughout February we were planning to stop that... but knowing that was the reasonable worst-case scenario, we planned for it."

Documents from the government's scientific advisory group, Sage, published in late January 2020 said that while there were a "number of scenarios" that were possible based on the virus transmissibility, that "the current [reasonable worst-case scenario] is similar to an influenza pandemic where no vaccine or specific treatment is available."

Speaking in March 2020, England's Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance had claimed that keeping the UK's death toll below 20,000 would be a "good outcome" for the country.

The UK has reported 152,289 deaths since the start of the pandemic. 

Hancock's comments on early pandemic planning followed questions about the UK's timeline for entering lockdown, with committee co-chair Greg Clark saying "we clearly didn't lock down early enough".

But Hancock insisted the government "knew about this problem from the start", adding that "the challenge from the early weeks of March" was to take a "massive judgement... based on incomplete information".

Hancock believed lockdown compliance could prove to be an issue. "Ultimately, you didn't know how long people would put up with it, it now seems obvious that people would put up with lockdowns," he said. 

"These are huge decisions, to take those decisions against the scientific advice is an even bigger decision to make."Hancock defended the delays to the introduction of border restrictions, saying it would have only impacted transmission rates by a "degree".

"The only way the world could have stopped this virus getting out of China is if China itself had stopped people leaving China," he said. 

"As soon as people were allowed to leave China to go to one place, then unless the whole world took action on borders – as they have done now – it would have only delayed [transmission] to a degree.

"That was the clear clinical advice."

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