Ministers failed to learn lessons from first Covid wave and locked down too late

By the end of January, half of the UK’s then-death toll of 100,000 had died in the weeks since mid-November. The total count now stands at more than 113,000.

The government failed to learn the lessons from the first wave of coronavirus last spring, resulting in a delayed national lockdown and a higher death rate over Christmas, Professor Neil Ferguson has suggested.

The senior scientific adviser, who sits on the government’s Nervtag emergency virus committee, said a “fragmented” consensus over the correct level of restrictions meant the country was in a weaker position going into the winter.

“Had we learnt the lessons properly from the first wave, then we would have been in a better situation coming into Christmas and much lower infection levels and therefore fewer deaths,” he told Sky News.

Ministers were advised in September by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that a nationwide “circuit breaker” lockdown was needed to curb the rapid spread of the virus but they waited until October before bringing in the tiered system and delayed a full national shutdown until the beginning of January.

“We would have been in a better position for the winter had we locked down earlier in the autumn,” Professor Ferguson said.

“I think the most disappointing choice – you can always go back to March and say well people were balancing very difficult considerations, but by September we knew exactly what this virus could do.

“Unfortunately, because in some sense the political consensus had fragmented, governments across Europe, and this is not particularly a criticism of this government, reacted too late.

“So it was only in October that we really tightened up measures, and only in November that we locked down again and then not really for long enough.”

Professor Ferguson also said it was likely that despite the rollout of vaccines, people would need to continue wearing masks and observing social distancing rules for “much of this year”.

“I am hoping by this time next year, it will look a lot more normal,” he said. “Maybe there will still be mask wearing for mass gatherings and things like that but I very much doubt we will be anything like where we are now.”

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