Neil Ferguson denies stepping over the line when advising Government in pandemic
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose Covid modelling was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown, has denied stepping “over the line” and telling ministers they needed to shut down.
The scientist, who is director of the school of public health at Imperial College London and was a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) during the pandemic, was asked repeatedly during the Covid inquiry on Tuesday about why he had not given bigger warnings in early 2020 over the potential death toll.
He was also asked by the inquiry’s lead counsel, Hugo Keith KC, whether, despite his best endeavours, he had become involved “in the determination of policy”.
Prof Ferguson (pictured) replied: “I know I’m very much associated with a particular policy…but the reality was a lot more complex.
“I don’t think I stepped over that line to say ‘we need to do this now’.
“What I tried to do was, at times – which was stepping outside the scientific advisory role – to try and focus people’s minds on what was going to happen and the consequences of current trends.”
Imperial College produced a wide range of models during the Covid pandemic.
One suggested that in the worst-case scenario, 65,000 Britons could die, while another suggested 500,000 would die if no action was taken to tackle the spread of the virus.
The inquiry also heard that England’s Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty was “hoping it won’t be as bad as we say” days before the UK went into lockdown.
Prof Ferguson, who apologised to the inquiry for breaching lockdown rules himself, suggested he grew increasingly alarmed in the weeks leading up to lockdown about the thinking in Government on what should be done.
In an email sent to fellow Sage members professors John Edmunds and Jeremy Farrar on March 13 2020 (10 days before lockdown), Prof Ferguson said he was “amazed” that Prof Whitty and then chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance had not appeared to ask NHS bosses if the NHS could cope with the numbers of sick people that would arise from Government policy.
At this point, the Government was still trying to contain the spread of the virus throughout the UK, though it did introduce public guidance to limit social contact a few days later.
In the email, Prof Ferguson further said he was modelling what would happen if schools shut and people worked from home and did not have a social life outside their home.
He told his colleagues he thought the previous day’s Sage meeting had got “the message” across, adding: “I still think part of the issue is Chris is hoping it won’t be as bad as we say.”
Mr Keith asked him about the email during questioning,
Prof Ferguson replied that he had been reinforcing support for the “estimates we were coming up with” and “Chris was naturally more conservative…and they were uncertain estimates.”
Asked about an earlier Sage meeting on March 5 and why he did not warn the Government then that a crisis was coming, he said: “It is not minuted … But that was about the time where both John Edmunds and myself got concerned about the slight air of unreality of some of the discussions and did start talking in the margins to members, well let’s say Government attendees at Sage, saying ‘do know what this is going to be like?’”
Prof Ferguson was further pressed about thinking in the middle of March before lockdown.
“I wasn’t actually aware of what the Government was considering or wasn’t considering at the time,” he said.
“I mean, in terms of what was going on within Cobra, I had no visibility of Cobra…
“There was a complete Chinese wall between Sage and Cobra so it was not as if Sage meetings started with a readout from Cobra about what the Government were thinking and planning to do.
“We had almost no visibility in fact, in terms of operational planning.
“It wasn’t clear for instance, that exceeding healthcare… NHS capacity.. was an absolute red line, really, until I would argue, the 14th of March, in terms of what we had been had been communicated to us as independent members of Sage.”
He said if he were to “put it in my recommendations for learning lessons for the future, the artificial divide between scientific advice and then operational planning and response was a hindrance”.
He added: “We have very little visibility of what was going on in terms of preparedness within Government. I would occasionally at the margins of Sage meetings hear a little, but nothing definitive.
“I think even more so was the lack of visibility of what Government red lines were, what were the absolute constraints that policies had to adhere to?
“I mean, red lines is one way of putting it – objectives would have been nice as well.”
Earlier, Prof Ferguson said the UK’s border control strategy in the early months of 2020 “was only ever going to prevent a small fraction of infected people coming into the country”.
He further agreed that measures adopted aimed at containing the virus in the early months of 2020 were never going to work.
The inquiry continues.
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