By Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) - The British government defended its early handling of the coronavirus outbreak after a Reuters investigation found its scientific advisers were too slow to communicate their growing concerns about the outbreak to the public and ministers.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially approved a much more modest response to the outbreak than other major European countries, who took more stringent measures, though he later approved an effective shutdown of the United Kingdom.
Reuters reported this week based on interviews and records published that the scientific committees that advised Johnson did not study in detail until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China, where the disease arose in December.
As they watched China impose its lockdown, the British scientists assumed that such drastic actions would never be acceptable in a democracy like the United Kingdom, the Reuters investigation found.
But Patrick Vallance, the government's top scientific adviser, said that modelling was carried out quickly enough to effectively inform Britain's reaction to the pandemic.
"It's not correct that we didn't model it until March. We modelled it throughout February," Vallance said at a news conference in Downing Street. "We modelled all of the interventions you have now seen."
John Edmunds, a professor of infectious disease modelling, told Reuters neither he nor a colleague at Imperial College, who were both founders of the flu pandemic modelling committee, carried out detailed modelling for a lockdown originally "because it didn’t seem to be on the agenda".
What allowed Britain to alter course, said Edmunds, was a lockdown in Italy that “opened up the policy space” coupled with new data. First came a paper by Edmunds’ own London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine team that examined intermittent lockdowns, sent to the modelling committee on March 11 and validated by Edinburgh University.
That was followed by a report by Professor Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College team on March 16 which predicted that, unconstrained, the virus could kill 510,000 people. Even the government’s “mitigation” approach could lead to 250,000 deaths and intensive care units being overwhelmed at least eight times over.
Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh and another member of the flu pandemic modelling committee, confirmed the sequence of events.
Edmunds said these new studies together had demonstrated that if the British government imposed a lengthy period of tougher measures, perhaps relaxed periodically, then the size of the epidemic could be substantially reduced.
Asked by Reuters why members of the modelling committee said that they had not carried out detailed modelling for a lockdown until March, Vallance said: "I know what happened, and I've just told you what happened, and the modelling came in from a variety of different sources."
The United Kingdom is entering what scientists say is the deadliest phase of the outbreak, with deaths expected to continue to rise over the Easter weekend.
Total UK hospital deaths from COVID-19 rose by 881 to 7,978 as of 1600 GMT on April 8, the government said on Thursday.
Minutes of technical committees reviewed by Reuters also indicate that almost no attention was paid to preparing a programme of mass testing.
After developing a test for the new virus by Jan. 10, health officials adopted a centralised approach to its deployment, initially assigning a single public laboratory in north London to perform the tests.
But early on there was no wider plan envisaged to make use of hundreds of laboratories across the country, both public and private, that could have been recruited.
Chris Whitty, the government's chief medical adviser, who earlier this week admitted that the government should have moved much faster to mass test, said one of the problems was the government wanted to be sure the test worked.
"Initially we had to start off to make sure the test worked," Whitty said at the Downing Street briefing on Thursday. "We had to be confident about that and then it was rolled out in stages and continues to be rolled out in stages."
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, William James and Andy Bruce, writing by Alistair Smout; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Stephen Addison and Jonathan Oatis)