Matt Hancock clashes with leading scientist over warning that late lockdown ‘cost lives’ and lifting now risks second peak

‘I wish we had gone into lockdown earlier – I think that has cost a lot of lives,’ Professor John Edmunds says

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 07 June 2020 11:19 BST
Scientist John Edmunds says lockdown-easing happening too soon

Matt Hancock has clashed with a leading scientist who said that the timing of the lockdown “cost lives” and that “relaxing” now would risk a second peak.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the number of coronavirus infections was still too high: “If we relax, this epidemic will come back really fast.”

He added: “I wish we had gone into lockdown earlier – I think that has cost a lot of lives unfortunately.”

The health secretary denied both charges, insisting: “We took the right decisions at the right time.”

The government is expected to press ahead with a full reopening of retail in eight days’ time, pointing to daily infections falling to about 5,500, from 8,000 a week earlier.

However, Prof Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the figure excluded hospitals and care homes – and only counted cases in England.

“It’s up to them, it’s their choice,” he said, on further easing of the lockdown, but added: “I would still prefer to see cases come down lower than they are at the moment.”

Asked about people who may believe that “it’s all over”, he warned: “It’s definitely not all over, unfortunately. There is an awful long way to go.”

The critical “R” (reproduction) rate – where a figure above 1 means the coronavirus will spread exponentially – was “creeping close to 1” or even “at around 1” in some regions, such as the northwest.

Mr Hancock, speaking on the BBC’s programme The Andrew Marr Show, denied that the lockdown had been imposed too late, while declining to dispute whether the timing had “cost lives”.

“There are others [on Sage] who make different scientific arguments,” he said, without naming any when challenged to do so.

“I’m sure, taking into account everything we knew at that moment, my view is that we took the right decisions at the right time.”

He added: “There’s a broad range on Sage of scientific opinion and we were guided by the science, which means guided by the balance of that opinion – as expressed to ministers through the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser. That’s the right way for it to have been done.”

The health secretary also:

* Again refused to reveal how many people have used the new test-and-trace programme – more than one week after its troubled launch;

* Was unable to say when the smartphone app he planned to introduce “in mid-May” would finally be up-and-running;

* Claimed his target of delivering test kits to 9,000 “eligible” care homes by Saturday had been met.

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