Introducing the coronavirus lockdown days earlier could have made a difference to the scale of the outbreak, the government’s chief scientific officer has admitted.
Sir Patrick Vallance said: “When you look at everything that happened, maybe days either way would have made a difference.”
But he rejected the idea that ministers should have brought in the restrictions at the start of March.
He told MPs: “I think it’s difficult to look back and say that three weeks [earlier] was an obvious point to do it. I don’t think that was clear, I don’t think that is clear now”.
Sir Patrick had been pressed by Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, on whether a lockdown at the start of March, which would have prevented events such as the Cheltenham Festival, would have made a significant difference.
Ministers came under pressure in the days before Boris Johnson announced the sweeping restrictions after countries including Ireland and France announced their own lockdowns.
Sir Patrick also said the evidence suggested many UK cases came from from Europe, rather than China, where the disease was first identified.
He told MPs: “There was a big influx of cases, probably from Italy and Spain in early March, seeded right across the country.”
Sir Patrick said the risk of contracting coronavirus is about the same for someone spending one minute at two metres away from an infected person and just six seconds at one metre away from the same person.
But he played down the importance of face coverings, despite Boris Johnson claiming they could play a role in disease prevention and in giving people confidence when the lockdown is eased.
Crucially, Sir Patrick also said that controlling outbreaks in care homes would be “critical” to preventing a second peak of the epidemic – another apparent pointer to restrictions staying in place for now.
“That is an important part of this epidemic and needs to be controlled,” the chief scientific adviser said.
Sir Patrick also told MPs on the Commons Health and Social Care Committee that he believed the crucial “R” value, which says how much the disease is spreading, is currently still between 0.6 and 0.9.
There is a “little bit of regional variation” in the number, he said.
“It needs to be below one, because as long as it’s below one that means that the epidemic is reducing.”
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