Prospect’s chief science writer speaks to leading epidemiologists—including Neil Ferguson, who made this striking claim. He concludes that countless lives were unnecessarily lostby Philip Ball / June 12, 2020 / Leave a comment
A week before the official UK lockdown began on 23rd March, my partner and I decided the time had come to do it for ourselves. We took our children out of school, relied on online food ordering, and barely ever ventured beyond the front gate.
This is why the claim by Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist who was an adviser to the government until he resigned for flouting lockdown rules (oh, there’s so much backstory now…), that deaths from Covid-19 in the UK would have been halved by locking down a week earlier sends a chill down my spine. The coronavirus has hit households of my youngest daughter’s school class hard—no fatalities, thank goodness, but some parents are still suffering the effects many weeks later. I am a very far from young man, and therefore in one of the demographics at considerable risk. Had we not acted as we did, things could have gone very differently for us.
I don’t want to smugly claim prescience (and God knows we’re not out of this yet). We were extremely fortunate to be in a position to have taken this course. For one thing, I had been “following the science” for weeks myself, speaking to experts about the severity of the pandemic. But also, since both my partner and I are at home anyway, and having previously home-educated our kids, we were privileged with the resources to go it alone. Most people could not stop going to work until the government made it mandatory. Many who have lost loved ones and friends in the pandemic will now be left asking whether things would have been otherwise if the government had acted more swiftly and decisively.
That’s the case for Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and writer whose father died of Covid-19 at the age of 58. “He was a hard-working entrepreneur,” says Burnett, “and I imagine many of the people he met up with that week had been to Cheltenham [the horse-racing event permitted to open on 10th March], or some other mass gathering that was already illegal in neighbouring countries.”
Ferguson claimed in March that up to 250,000 people might die if the government pursued what appeared to be its strategy of allowing the virus to…