Senior government scientists were warned more than a month before lockdown that it was a case of “when not if” the UK would be engulfed by a Covid epidemic, it has emerged.
The Covid inquiry was shown an email sent from Professor Neil Ferguson on 21 February, 2020 to Sir Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance and other top scientific advisers urging them to take immediate action to stop the virus spreading.
But at the time, Sir Chris, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said he believed it was “not easy to predict” when there would be sustained person-to-person transmission in the UK, and it was still possible that “if the epidemic recedes in Asia” then it could be “never”. At the time there were only a handful of confirmed cases in the UK.
It was not until 23 March that Boris Johnson, following a warning from Professor Ferguson’s modelling team at Imperial College London that the virus risked killing hundreds of thousands of people unless drastic action was taken, that a nationwide lockdown was imposed.
Sir Chris earlier admitted to the inquiry that “with the benefit of hindsight” the lockdown came “a bit too late”.
The inquiry also heard how Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, the then deputy chief medical officer for England, had warned Sir Chris on 16 January, 2020 that he was “seriously concerned” about the virus, at that stage confirmed in Hubei region of China, and that “my view was that this would be a significant pandemic”.
In an email to Professor Ferguson, Sir Patrick, Sir Jonathan and others on 21 February, Sir Chris wrote: “An event like this in the UK could obviously happen at any point. It is not easy to predict when, it may be very soon, in weeks or (if the epidemic recedes in Asia and elsewhere) never…
“How we should respond if/when we such an outbreak will depend on multiple factors including in particular whether we are still in a global containment phase (still the current global stance), and the scale and location of any outbreak in the UK.”
Sir Chris warned against “presenting speculative scenarios” which he said were not always “helpful in public understanding”.
In a terse reply, Professor Ferguson – who has been dubbed “Professor Lockdown” for his later pivotal role in convincing the government to take action – wrote: “I agree with 90% of what you say. But I really do feel that it is not a matter of if but when.
“That is not my personal opinion, but is where all the data is pointing. I agree that it may be that China has reversed spread – but using interventions on a scale it would be hard to implement here, and at an enormous cost. And likely only buying temporary respite.”
Asked about the emails by Hugo Keith KC, the lead counsel for Lady Hallett’s inquiry, Sir Chris said at the time there were still fewer than 10 cases identified in the UK and no confirmed deaths.
He said it would have been “very difficult to sustain internationally” a situation where the UK government said “we’re going to stop trying to contain this” and move to tougher measures.
The inquiry had heard earlier this week evidence from Sir Patrick that he and Sir Chris took slightly different approaches to the speed of lockdown, with the former remarking that his colleague was “more cautious” about the measure.
In his evidence on Tuesday, Sir Chris was asked about Sir Jonathan’s warning from mid-January and why he did not raise the alarm across government warning that a pandemic was imminent.
The chief medical officer said in his role he received daily warnings of public health threats and it was up to him to judge which one posed the most serious risk.
Mr Keith said told Sir Chris that Sir Johnathan – who will give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday – had raised his concerns but the response was “to wait and monitor developments”.
Sir Chris told the inquiry: “Jonathan, and I think he would agree with this, is quite instinctive in some of these decisions – very often, rightly.
“He is a very able epidemiologist and thinker in this area, but if I had said to him, ‘OK, what is the evidence on which this is going to be a pandemic?’, he would have said, ‘It just feels like that to me’.
“That’s quite a narrow basis on which to make quite big decisions.”