Professor Lockdown stands by doomsday forecast that triggered lockdown

Professor Lockdown stands by doomsday forecast that sent Britain into lockdown: Warning of half a million deaths was an ‘underestimate’, admits Neil Ferguson

  • Professor Neil Ferguson was a member of SAGE until dramatic resignation in May
  • Imperial College epidemiologist said he was not in favour of lockdown to begin
  • Original prediction of 510,000 UK deaths didn’t account for hospital overload

One of Britain’s top Covid-19 experts has stood by his prediction that half a million people could have died without a lockdown.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a former adviser to the Government before he resigned after breaking lockdown rules to meet his married lover, said his early model was actually an ‘underestimate’.

Work he produced alongside colleagues at Imperial College London suggested that if no action was taken to slow down coronavirus, at least 510,000 people could have died.

The report chilled Britain to its core and is credited for pressing Boris Johnson into ordering the nation to stay at home in March, earning Ferguson the name ‘Professor Lockdown’ — which he admitted today he doesn’t like.

Now, as the UK’s death toll stands at about 10 per cent of what it could have been – between 40,000 and 50,000 – Professor Ferguson has stood by the work. He said that if anything the model was an ‘underestimate’ and it didn’t take into account people who might have died as a result of hospitals being overwhelmed.

He was not a fan of the idea of lockdown off the bat, he admitted to BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific podcast, and had to be talked round to accepting that it was necessary. 

And the Professor also expressed regret about his own lockdown break that led to his resignation but said that the press had singled him out over the incident.

Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, was part of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) until he resigned after breaking lockdown rules to meet with his girlfriend

A report published by the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team, led by Professor Ferguson, predicted on March 16 that 510,000 people could die in the UK if no measures were taken to slow down the coronavirus. Britain might end up with a higher per-person death rate than the US, the report warned

The doomsday report published on March 16 by Imperial’s Covid-19 Response Team predicted that death rates could soar if coronavirus wasn’t controlled in the UK.

It said: ‘In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour, we would expect a peak in mortality (daily deaths) to occur after approximately three months…

‘The higher peak in mortality in Great Britain is due to the smaller size of the country and its older population compared with the US. 

‘In total, in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in GB and 2.2million in the US, not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality.’

The report was published just one week before Britain’s total lockdown started, and Professor Ferguson’s work was credited with pressuring politicians.

Defending the team’s notorious original predictions, Professor Ferguson told The Life Scientific that it was a worst case scenario that they never expected to happen. 

But he said: ‘I completely stand by [it].

‘If anything, it might have been an underestimate because we didn’t take account of the fact of what actually happened to mortality rates if the health system collapsed, the mortality rates could have been even higher.’

He admitted that encouraging lockdown was not their original intention, and he doesn’t like the nickname ‘Professor Lockdown’. 

‘It may seem like I was the kind of creator of this policy,’ he said. ‘It took me quite a while to be persuaded that that was what we had to do.

‘And I was always very conscious of what impact it would have on society and the economy. 

‘So I’ve never been a complete enthusiast for the idea of locking down society. It was a last resort.’ 

Data from the Imperial College team suggested that no individual measure short of a total lockdown would have been able to stop the coronavirus overwhelming NHS intensive care units

The Imperial model predicted that closing schools and universities would not necessarily relieve pressure on the NHS, but simply delay it – the spike in critical care bed occupancy is the same size as it would be if nothing was done, but it happens six months later

Professor Ferguson resigned from his role as a Government adviser on SAGE after he was caught breaking lockdown rules to meet his girlfriend.

The Telegraph revealed at the time that his lover Antonia Staats, who was married, had visited the home of Professor Ferguson, also married, in breach of social distancing.    

Asked about the incident which led him to quit his SAGE role, Professor Ferguson said: ‘I mean, that was a stupid thing for me to do.

‘I made a judgment of risk, which I think probably was a valid judgment, [which was] because I’d had Covid that I would be immune, and therefore that contact would not pose a risk.

‘That is exactly the wrong thing to do – telling people that you have to maintain social distancing and not doing it myself.

‘I think I was also targeted by certain section of the press and so they couldn’t believe their luck in that sense, and I regret it most because of the impact on my family and those close to me, and it has been a sobering and humbling experience.’


The scientific paper published by Professor Ferguson and his colleagues on the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team was credited for persuading Boris Johnson’s Government to ramp up their response to the coronavirus.

The paper, released on March 17, and titled Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand, predicted that the Government’s original plan to ‘mitigate’ the outbreak instead of trying to stop it could have led to a quarter of a million people dying.

Using data from Italy and China, the scientists predicted how different Government measures would have different impacts on the outbreaks. 

If no action at all had been taken against the coronavirus it would have claimed 510,000 lives, the team’s report said. Had the Government stuck with their strategy of trying to ‘mitigate’ the spread – allowing it to continue but attempting to slow it down – with limited measures such as home isolation for those with symptoms this number would be roughly halved to 260,000. 

If the strictest possible measures are introduced, the number of deaths over a two-year period will fall below 20,000, the scientists said.

Other points in the Imperial College report, titled Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand, included: 

  • Lockdown measures could be brought back if the virus resurfaces after this epidemic is over
  • The coronavirus outbreak is worse than anything the world has seen since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic 
  • Dramatic measures to suppress an outbreak carry ‘enormous social and economic costs which may themselves have significant impact on health and well-being’
  • Virus transmission happens evenly – one third of cases are caught in the home, one third at work or school, and one third elsewhere in the community
  • People are thought to be infectious from 12 hours before symptoms start, or from four days after catching the infection if someone doesn’t get symptoms
  • Patients who do get symptoms are thought to be 50 per cent more infectious than those who don’t 
  • People are thought to develop at least short-term immunity after catching the virus, meaning they can’t catch it again
  • Approximately 4.4 per cent of patients need hospital care. 30 per cent of those need intensive care, and 50 per cent of intensive care patients can be expected to die, according to data from China
  • The average length of a hospital stay for a coronavirus patient is 10 days – eight days for those who recover quickly; 16 days for those who need intensive care.

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