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10 Jun 2020

Exclusive: UK government was advised to have lockdown two weeks earlier

Health and Social Care Correspondent

Channel 4 News has seen a report, prepared for one of the scientific committees, which advised the government in the starkest possible way to implement a lockdown – a full two weeks before the official announcement was made.

The leaked paper, dated 9 March, appears to be written for the modelling group which feeds into the government’s scientific advisers, SPI-M. It warns that the UK government should abandon its mitigation approach for intense control measures – such as lockdown – in response to the Covid-19 epidemic.

The paper, by Steven Riley, professor at Imperial College London, finds that mitigation – the strategy the government was following at the time – would lead to 1.7 million deaths.

Professor Riley advocated a change of strategy to that seen in Hong Kong, Japan, Italy and elsewhere of “successful ongoing control”, i.e. lockdown.

The document states that it was intended for the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group of Modelling (SPI-M) two weeks before the prime minister announced the lockdown.

In the paper the professor wrote: “The UK is currently planning a mitigation response to the COVID-19 epidemic rather than ongoing containment. This strategy is informed by prior modelling studies and analysis of the severe 1918 influenza pandemic. The primary benefit of mitigation is that the epidemic will be over more quickly than might otherwise be the case, with the population having acquired herd immunity and also having experienced a relatively low peak.

“Here, we use simple compartmental models and recent infection fatality rate estimates for the UK to explicitly examine the implications of the UK population responding to a severe pathogen more strongly than did populations in 1918. We show that critical care facilities in the UK would be saturated quickly.

“If populations spontaneously reduce transmission close to threshold values when this occurs, any possible benefits of attempting mitigation are lost. The country would then have to either struggle on to the availability of a vaccine without a functioning health system or attempt the most stringent possible interventions to lower incidence back to containment levels.

“Over the same period of time, either of these scenarios would likely have far greater economic costs than would result from an immediate switch now to ongoing containment. These results directly support current advice from the World Health Organisation and are consistent with policy decisions made by China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and most recently Italy. Even if ongoing containment were to fail, we would have gained time and knowledge with which to decide our next strategy.”

Professor Riley concludes: “Essentially, our choice is whether to live with relatively high levels of infections and to let the virus decide our social structure for the next 18 months, or for us to find a way to live such that we keep levels of infection low and our social structures as close to normal as possible.

“These results could be disheartening to those planning a response to COVID-19 epidemics. However, we suggest that they may also be a powerful positive motivation for action. The model results here do no more than reinforce the findings of the WHO China Mission and validate the strategy adopted by Chinese health authorities in or around the 23rd of January 2020; and then subsequently by Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.

“We suggest that they are strong evidence with which to abandon mitigation strategies, justified in any way by the possibility of a short epidemic. Governments need to devote the entirety of their attention and resources to creating viable ongoing solutions to the presence of this virus. We suggest that the first step is to adopt stringent fixed-term social distancing so as to give time for detailed planning the rapid development of any accompanying technology.”

Channel 4 News asked Downing Street for a comment, but they passed us to the Government Office for Science – and we have not yet heard back from them.