The experts claimed Boris Johnson could have saved tens of thousands of lives if he hadn’t been so slow in locking down in the spring and in autumn, when the second wave was taking off.
Professor Calum Semple, an infectious disease expert at Liverpool University who sits on SAGE, warned it ‘really would not surprise me if we’re looking at another 40-50,000 deaths before this burns out’.
His comments echoed a warning from Professor Chris Whitty at last night’s Downing Street press conference, when he said fatalities will remain high over the next few weeks and only decline slowly.
The experts say the huge numbers of people infected in December and January, combined with the super-infectious Kent variant, means the country will be grappling with lots of deaths until the vaccines can be rolled out to the most vulnerable.
Professor Neil Ferguson, who was sacked by SAGE in spring after breaking social distancing rules to meet his married lover, blamed the high death toll on the Government being too slow to react to the rising infections in autumn. In September and October, SAGE begged ministers to impose a circuit breaker during the half-term break to halt the second wave in its tracks.
Professor Ferguson, dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ after his terrifying modelling spooked No10 into the lockdown in spring, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘Had we acted earlier and with greater stringency back in September when we first saw case numbers going up, and had a policy of keeping case numbers at a reasonably low level, then I think a lot of deaths we’ve seen – not all by any means – but a lot of the deaths that we’ve seen in the last four or five months, could have been avoided.
Department of Health statistics showed a further 1,631 deaths from the virus were recorded yesterday, taking the national tally to 100,162 which is the fifth highest in the world.
Professor Neil Ferguson (left), who triggered the first lockdown, said a mixture of bad luck, taking measures too slowly and the new variant was to blame for the high death toll. Professor Calum Semple, from Sage, (right) said decades of under-funding the NHS had led to the grim tally being reached
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School, told MailOnline he ‘didn’t buy’ that the mutant strain was to blame for the rising numbers of deaths.
‘We’ve been in this because Test and Trace wasn’t working properly – even now it is not working – and we didn’t control our borders,’ he said.
Test and Trace has rarely met its threshold of tracking down 80 per cent of close contacts and isolating them since it launched in May last year.
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‘The issue with variants is that you’re generating new ones all the time and if you don’t put the lid on it then you’ll generate more variants all the time.
‘A lot of this is a consequence of having enormous levels of infection in the community and that not being fully controlled.
‘The new variant is very transmissible but it stops if you use normal restrictions – if you test, trace, isolate and you provide support.’
Asked what he thought the turning point in the pandemic that led to 100,000 deaths was, he said ‘taking our eye off the ball over the summer and letting people travel in and out of the country’ was to blame.
‘Most of the introductions were from Europe,’ he added. ‘We were too relaxed and too complacent.’
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth accused the Government of a ‘litany of errors’ in a round of interviews this morning, but was forced to beat back criticism the party had only called for harsher measures when they thought the Government was about to declare them.
The Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted today the Government had done ‘everything that we could to protect people’s lives’, but admitted some things could have been done differently ‘with the benefit of hindsight’.
Boris Johnson offered his ‘deepest condolences’ to all those who have lost loved ones to the virus at a Downing Street press conference yesterday, and promised a national memorial to them after the pandemic.
Ministers have promised that an enquiry into their decisions will also be held once the virus has receded, which is expected to pick over decisions to learn from their mistakes.
The vaccination drive offers the biggest hope for driving down fatalities, but it isn’t expected to start impacting the bleak figures for weeks because it takes at least two weeks to trigger immunity after a first dose.
Professor Semple, who is also an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, accused ‘decades of under-investment in our NHS’ for the high tally but said he felt scientists could not have done much more to stop it rolling over into six-figures.
‘There’s been some bad luck with evolution of this more-transmissible new strain, but we’ve also had decades of under-investment in our NHS so it is left with no stretch capacity and a public health authority that’s been eroded as well,’ he told BBC Newsnight.
‘That probably has had some impact on where we are today. But could we have done much to change [the number of deaths]? I’m not sure we could have.’
Professor Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, also told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that the more infectious variant of the virus was partially blame for the spike in deaths.
‘The acceleration that we’ve seen since then in the UK just in the last four to six weeks has been in the presence of quite a lot of controls and is really attributable to that new variant. So I think it’s partly bad luck in the end,’ he said.
He also pinned some of the blame on the failure to get the Test and Trace system functioning. Commenting on the toll, he added: ‘The mid-point of this epidemic in terms of deaths was early November,’ he said.
‘And the last third of deaths – the last 33,000 – have unfortunately accumulated just in the last six weeks, which is about the same time actually slightly faster than the first third accumulated back in March last year.’
Virus cases in Europe have remained stubbornly high throughout winter despite tougher restrictions being introduced, with many countries now considering new national shutdowns – if they have not been imposed already
Professor Linda Bauld told BBC Breakfast: ‘Unfortunately the number of people dying is not going to decline quickly, and even then it will remain for a while at a really high rate so we’re absolutely not out of it.
‘I think where we are now is a legacy of poor decisions that were taken when we eased restrictions earlier in the year particularly around travel etc and then of course the variant has created extra pressure.’
Mr Ashworth told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’re roughly 12 months on from the first case being identified in the United Kingdom, to think that we’ve lost 100,000 people in the past 12 months is horrendous.
‘We talk about statistics but every individual would have had families, friends, who are grieving and will be grieving particularly today I suspect, and of course within that cohort of people we’ve lost thousands who were in care homes and I’m afraid were left exposed and unprotected.’
He added: ‘It’s just horrendous on every front… I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I just do not believe that Boris Johnson did everything we could, I just can’t accept that.
‘We all accept these are challenging times for any government, this is a virus which has swept across the world with speed and severity and it continues to spread ferociously… But monumental mistakes have been made, we have had a litany of errors in the last 12 months, and he didn’t have to make these mistakes.’
Mr Ashworth said it was not fair to say Labour had pushed for measures only when they were about to happen, telling the programme it had called for a circuit-breaker lockdown in the autumn.
Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, has warned there will be many more deaths from the virus recorded over the coming weeks because of previous infections.
It can take at least three weeks for someone who has been infected with the virus to suffer symptoms severe enough to need hospitalisation, and then sadly succumb to the disease.
It comes as Mr Johnson today publishes a list of up to 30 ‘high risk’ Covid countries where returning travellers will be forced to quarantine in hotels for 10 days – but Labour have said it is not tough enough.
The Prime Minister last night met with officials to put the finishing touches to the Australian-style scheme, which is being introduced following concerns about new Covid variants entering Britain – but ignored a plea from Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock to apply the diktat to all arrivals.
Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer told the Commons today that the Government had ‘failed’ by being ‘too slow’ to bring it in and claiming that quarantining people from 30 countries ‘doesn’t go far enough’.
Passengers arriving in Britain from any of the listed countries will have to isolate for 10 days in hotels near airports and pay around £1,500 for the privilege.
Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy The PC Agency, claims that all travellers will also be asked by airlines and border officials if their journey is essential.
Airlines will be fined if they fail to enforce non-exemptions properly, he said.
The 30 ‘high risk’ countries, due to be published later today along with a start date, are expected to include Brazil, South Africa, Portugal, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, much of South America and southern Africa.
These areas have been chosen because of dangerous variants that have emerged there – or because they have rocketing infection and death rates.
The government is also considering dumping its ‘test and release’ scheme, which allows travellers to leave quarantine if they have a negative Covid test on the fifth day in isolation. This would ensure anyone arriving in Britain would have to self-isolate for ten days.
Priti Patel, who was calling for a blanket hotel quarantine policy for all travellers, will set out the details in the Commons after the Prime Minister gives a statement on Covid today.