Two thirds of coronavirus victims may have died this year anyway, government adviser says

Professor Neil Ferguson said experts were now expecting around 20,000 deaths, although said it may turn out to be a lot less

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Professor Neil Ferguson video calls into the Science and Technology committee
Professor Neil Ferguson video calls into the Science and Technology committee

Up to two thirds of people who die from coronavirus in the next nine months are likely to have died this year from other causes, a government advisor has said.

Professor Neil Ferguson, who is recovering at home from Covid-19, told the Science and Technology Committee that experts were now expecting around 20,000 deaths, although said it may turn out to be a lot less.

But he said that many of those deaths were likely to be old and seriously ill people who would have died from other conditions before the end of the year.

Appearing via videolink, and drinking from a Keep Calm and Carry On mug, Prof Ferguson said: “We don’t know what the level of excess deaths will be in the epidemic, in that, by the end of the year what proportion of people who died from covid would have died?

“It might be as much as half or two thirds of the deaths we see, because these are people at the end of their lives or have underlying conditions so these are considerations.

“Fatalities are probably unlikely to exceed 20,000 with social distancing strategies but it could be substantially lower than that and that’s where real time analysis will be needed.”

Prof Ferguson, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said that the decision to lockdown Britain had been taken because the NHS simply could not have coped with the surge in demand, which would have had a huge knock-on effect for other health services, potentially having unintended consequences. 

He said that he expected the virus to peak within 2.5 to three weeks before tailing off and said that the warmer weather could also see transmision dip by up to 20 per cent. 

The government’s strategy is to keep people apart to flatten the peak so that the health service can cope with the cases until a vaccine or anti-viral is ready, which is unlikely before the end of the year.

Prof Ferguson said that the new social distancing measures announced by Boris Johnson earlier in the week meant the NHS would now be able to handle the incoming cases of coronavirus.

“The strategy being done now in some areas ICUs will get close to capacity but it won’t be reached at a national level,” he said.

“We are reasonably confident that at a national level we will be within capacity.”

The government has faced widespread criticism for failing to test people in the community and trace the people they have come into contact with, unlike other countries such as South Korea, which managed to contain the virus far more quickly. 

But Prof Ferguson said they were unable to adopt a similar strategy because Public Health England (PHE) had informed the Sage committee in January that there was not the capacity to test that number of people.

Instead, the current strategy aim is to suppress transmission indefinitely until other counter-measures are put in place, including a vaccine.

Prof Ferguson said it was clear that widespread testing was needed to help move the country from suppression measures and lockdown into something the country can manage longer-term.

He suggested that local areas may face lockdown if they have especially high rates of infection.

"There will be some resurgence of transmission but the hope is that by employing more focused policies to suppress those local outbreaks, we can maintain infection levels at low levels in the country as a whole indefinitely,” he said.

"It remains to be seen how we achieve this and how practical it proves to be. The long-term exit from this is clearly the hopes around a vaccine.”

However Sage was criticised for its slow response by the Editor of the medical journal the Lancet, who said experts had failed to appreciate just how serious the situation was in China by January, and the risk to Britain.

Richard Horton, said the group did not seem to have read important modelling papers that Chinese scientists had produced early in the epidemic.

There was a mismatch between the urgent warning that was coming from the frontline in China and the pedestrian evaluation of what the likely severity of the outbreak would be,” he told MPs.

“That suggests to me that we didn’t understand fully what was taking place. I think the perspective was largely on the UK but I haven’t seen an outreach to the scientists in China, 

“China has top scientists who are doing cutting edge work and have responded in the most unbelievably rapid way so if I had been chair of sage I would have wanted to go to those scientists on the frontline to find out what is coming for us in the UK.”