Imperial College London

Neil Ferguson: UK's Covid situation is 'bleak' as control measures may not work

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Neil Ferguson

Imperial's Professor Neil Ferguson says the UK's Covid situation is 'bleak' as existing control measures may not contain the new variant of the virus.

"The new variant of the virus transmits considerably more effectively than the previous variant and that means control measures that have worked in the past to contain spread may not work in the future." Neil Ferguson Director of J-IDEA and MRC-GIDA

Speaking on the BBC's HARDtalk with Stephen Sackur, Professor Ferguson said: "Britain’s covid situation is second only to the situation we were in on March 22 before the first lockdown, in terms of prospects going forward and in some ways is bleaker still.

"The new variant of the virus transmits considerably more effectively than the previous variant and that means control measures that have worked in the past to contain spread may not work in the future.

"The one silver lining is we are rolling out vaccines in the UK and the faster we can do that the faster we can protect people and reduce the toll of disease we are seeing currently."

Professor Ferguson and the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team, began modelling the spread of the virus in China in January 2020.

Last week, the team published a report showing the new virus variant has a transmission advantage of 0.4 to 0.7 in reproduction number compared to the previously observed strain.

The team published a landmark report in March which estimated that suppression measures - such as social distancing - would be needed until a vaccine became available otherwise infections would rebound quickly.

Professor Ferguson said: "We always anticipated back in February and March, with the initial analysis of how this virus spread, that while lockdown measures and social distancing could be effective as we’d seen in Italy and China, they only work for as long as they are in force, and if you relax those measures there comes a critical point where transmission starts resurging and that’s exactly what we saw across Europe in the autumn." 

Benefits of acting early

"I think a lot of what we see in terms of the death totals is really down to how quickly countries responded." Neil Ferguson Director of J-IDEA and MRC-GIDA

Professor Ferguson said that countries which acted early to suppress the virus had seen greater success in reducing hospitalisations and deaths.

Professor Ferguson said: "I think a lot of what we see in terms of the death totals is really down to how quickly countries responded.

"Undoubtedly countries like the UK but also Spain, Italy and France had much more infection spreading in those countries in February and March,  than our surveillance picked up because our surveillance wasn’t switched on soon enough, and that explains that first wave death toll.

"Unfortunately the same mistakes were made again in multiple counties in the autumn as well.

"Talking to scientists and colleagues across Europe they were all in the same position of advising government one thing but government feeling unable to act until they saw evidence of hospitalisations and deaths rising, and by the time you see that it’s almost too late." 

Professor Ferguson added: "If you look at multiple other countries such as Germany, and most of the Scandinavian countries, they have kept per capita mortality and hospital demand at a fraction of what we’ve seen throughout whole epidemic and that’s the benefit of acting earlier."

Virus will evolve

Speaking about the long-term outlook for the pandemic, Professor Ferguson said: "Looking forward we’re going to be living with coronavirus indefinitely, we’re never going to eliminate it from the human population, it will evolve, and we may need to regularly update our vaccines."

Watch the full interview on BBC HARDtalk

Reporter

Stephen Johns

Stephen Johns
School of Public Health

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 9531
Email: s.johns@imperial.ac.uk

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International, Global-health, Health-policy, COVIDWEF, Coronavirus
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