The UK does not have a “clear exit strategy” for resuming normal life following the nationwide lockdown imposed in March, according to a leading scientist advising the government on its response to coronavirus.
Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London’s influential Covid-19 response team, said testing will need to be significantly increased to allow people to return to some form of normality, but warned there was “no master plan” guiding the government’s decisions.
As research teams around the world have learnt more about the coronavirus pandemic, governments have been trying to find an “optimal strategy”, which prevents health services from collapsing but allows some economic and social activity to take place, Prof Ferguson said.
“Obviously what we would like to find is a strategy which allows us to go back to – it won’t be normal life but a bit closer to normal life, and suppresses transmission,” he told the Financial Times.
“That almost will certainly involve something akin to [South] Korea, massively ramping up testing, and contact-tracing.
“But it’s not clear even in Korea – and I’ve seen some of the analysis done there – that they can really relax all their social distancing and yet keep transmission low.”
The UK government has faced criticism in recent days over its failure to test people for Covid-19 on a similar scale to countries such as South Korea and Germany. Data showed more than 50,000 people have been tested per day in the latter.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said last week that the government was aiming to carry out 100,000 coronavirus tests per day in England by the end of April – a significant increase from the 10,000 per day being carried out at the time of the announcement.
However, there are still doubts about whether that target can be achieved, especially as some of the government’s previous pledges on testing have failed to materialise.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has said the UK government is focused on getting past the peak of the epidemic and it would make other decisions on policy "in due course".
"The number one priority is to stop the spread and to make sure that we can get past the peak and that is the overriding focus of the government right now. Other decisions can be considered in the light of the evidence that we are taking in due course," Mr Raab said.
In an interview with the FT’s Alphaville, Prof Ferguson revealed the prime minister and his cabinet had been aware of results from the Imperial team’s report, which warned of as many as 250,000 deaths from the virus, up to two weeks before social-distancing measures were ramped up last month.
“The government were aware of what our results were showing certainly in the previous week, and some of [the results] in the previous two weeks,” he said.
Prof Ferguson added that although it looked as though the paper had directly informed the decision to intensify restrictive measures on social contact, it had been part of a much wider range of advice given to the government.
“The paper came out that day partly because there was pressure on government to be showing the modelling informing policymaking, so we worked very hard to get that paper out at that time,” he said.
“It looked, therefore, like that was the paper that informed policymaking, but in fact a much wider range of scientific advice and modelling advice had gone into government in the previous two weeks, all of which pointed in that direction.”
The epidemiologist also warned there were “downsides” to the strategy of suppression, which has been adopted by the government to reduce deaths, as a process of relaxing and reintroducing restrictions could be difficult for the public to accept.
“There’s quite a lot of behavioural science under way at the moment suggesting that a lot of people would find that a hard strategy to swallow and accept,” Prof Ferguson said, adding that scientists were looking into ways to substitute “draconian” social-distancing measures for a more extensive testing system.
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