Thousands of lives could have been saved from Covid-19 if Britain’s lockdown was imposed just one week earlier, a government scientific adviser has claimed.
Sir Ian Boyd, a member of Number 10’s SAGE panel, admitted ‘it would have made quite a big difference’ if ministers acted sooner to fight the outbreak.
Department of Health figures show 36,042 Brits have died after testing positive for the coronavirus, which began to rapidly spread in the UK in March.
But the true number of Covid-19 victims is feared to be closer to the 60,000-mark, when suspected and indirect deaths are taken into account.
Sir Ian’s claim comes after research this week claimed triggering the UK’s lockdown a week earlier would have saved tens of thousands of lives.
The shock study suggested enforcing strict rules to fight the coronavirus crisis on March 16 could have limited the number of deaths to 11,200.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent the country into lockdown on March 23, 60 days ago, banning people from meeting up with others or making unnecessary trips.
Britain was one of the last countries in Europe to put the rules in place – Germany, Belgium, France, Spain and Italy had done it days or weeks earlier.
Sir Ian, a professor of biology at the University of St Andrews, told The Coronavirus Newscast: ‘Acting very early was really important.
‘I would have loved to have seen us acting a week or two weeks earlier and it would have made quite a big difference to the steepness of the curve of infection and therefore the death rate.
‘And I think that’s really the number one issue – could we have acted earlier? Were the signs there earlier on?’
He said the UK, as well as some of its European counterparts, were ‘slower off the mark’ than nations that had battled SARS in the early 2000s.
SARS, caused by another type of coronavirus, infected 8,000 people worldwide and killed 774 people in a year in 2002.
Sir Ian added: ‘One could point the finger at ministers and politicians for not being willing to listen to scientific advice.
‘You could point the finger at scientists for not actually being explicit enough. But at the end of the day all these interact with public opinion as well.
‘And I think some politicians would have loved to have reacted earlier but in their political opinion it probably wasn’t feasible because people wouldn’t have perhaps responded in the way they eventually did.’
The membership of the secretive SAGE committee which has been advising the Government on its handling of coronavirus was finally made public earlier this month.
The names of those who sit on the panel had not previously been published on security and independence grounds.
But officials bowed to mounting pressure and released the names of 50 experts across many fields who have sat in regular meetings during the pandemic.
The names on the list included well-known figures who have been involved in the daily press conferences, including chairman Sir Patrick Vallance.
It also included Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and his deputies Dr Jenny Harries and Professor Jonathan Van Tam.
Others present were epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson and Dr Demis Hassabis, the chief executive of Google’s DeepMind subsidiary.
Dr John Dagpunar, from the University of Southampton, echoed Sir Ian’s claims in shock research published earlier this week.
He said in his paper: ‘Literally, each day’s delay in starting lockdown can result in thousands of extra deaths.’
Dr Dagpunar, a mathematical sciences expert, added: ‘It does pose the question as to why lockdown did not occur earlier?’
He predicted how different scenarios may have affected the progress of the Covid-19 outbreak in Britain.
Starting the lockdown a week earlier on March 16 could have limited the number of deaths to 11,200, his analysis showed.
Dr Dagpunar’s study considered the number of people infected with the virus, its rate of reproduction, hospital bed and staff capacity, and the proportion of patients who die, among other factors.
He calculated the death rate to be one per cent, and the pre-lockdown reproduction rate (R) to be 3.18, meaning every 10 patients infected a further 32.
The paper estimated that 4.4 per cent of all patients need hospital treatment, 30 per cent of whom will end up in intensive care.
Of the intensive care patients, a hospital stay lasts 16 days on average and half of them go on to die.
Of the other 70 per cent, a hospital stay averages eight days and 11 per cent die.
Running these factors through an algorithm based on the timing of the UK’s outbreak, Dr Dagpunar suggested that the March 23 lockdown could have resulted in a total of around 39,000 deaths.
Britain is known to have passed this grim landmark number already, suggesting that the study’s estimate of fatality rate, virus R rate, or another factor, is too low.
If lockdown had been started a week earlier, on March 16, the model suggested, there could have been a ‘very large reduction’ in deaths, limiting them to around 11,200.
The virus would have infected four per cent less of the population in this scenario (two per cent compared to six per cent), the study said, and the demand for hospital beds would have been lower.
Dr Dagpunar said: ‘In hindsight [this] clearly illustrates that earlier action was needed and would have saved many lives.’
‘Literally, each day’s delay in starting suppression (lockdown) can result in thousands of extra deaths.
‘The same is true for premature relaxation, acknowledging that the rate of decline is less than the rate of growth, so the effect although severe is not quite as strong.
‘These conclusions are the incontrovertible consequence of the exponential growth and decline of a managed epidemic.’
Dr Dagpunar’s paper was published on the website medRxiv without being checked by other scientists or journal editors.
Polls of Brits show around two thirds of people think the government took too long to put the UK in lockdown.
But other experts say ministers ‘lost sight’ of the evidence and rushed into lockdown, praising Sweden for holding its nerve and not shutting down the economy.
Surveillance studies have shown the crucial R rate had already began to drop before the draconian measures were introduced.
And other data suggested transmission had peaked after the softer social distancing measures to curb the outbreak were rolled out on March 16.