Britain’s “Professor Lockdown” says the U.K. is on track to start loosening restrictions next month â€” and that he’s optimistic there will be no need for further lockdowns in the year ahead.
Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said the spread of the so-called U.K.-variant “has set us back a lot” but that he is hopeful following weeks of tough restrictions that primary schools at least will be able to reopen in early March.
“We’re in a better place than I might have anticipated a month ago,” he told POLITICO’s Westminster Insider podcast. “The lockdown has really driven down cases quite fast. Theyâ€™re basically halving about every 17 days at the moment or so, and that means in a month’s time â€” the prime minister’s talked about potentially reopening schools, we might have some bandwidth to do that, at least primary schools. And if we continue to see then a continued decline without large outbreaks, then perhaps starting to relax other aspects of society the following month.”
Ferguson â€”Â who resigned as a government adviser in May after he was caught breaching lockdown restrictions by receiving a visitor at his home â€” is hopeful there can be looser social restrictions through the spring and summer as the vaccine roll-out continues, but he cautions that a full return to normality will have to wait until the “real-world effectiveness” of the U.K.’s coronavirus vaccines has been measured.
And he had a stark warning for Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to repeat the mistakes which have left Britain with one of the highest death rates per capita in the world.
“I’m hopeful it will be the final lockdown,” Ferguson said, “So long as we are relatively cautious in coming out of this lockdown. If we relax too quickly without seeing the effect of each stage of relaxation, we may do what we’ve done before and relax too much, see a surge in case numbers, and still need to tighten up measures again.â€
He added: “My best guess is, though, my fervent hope is, certainly, by this time next year, we will be basically back to normal. I mean, without any significant degree of the current controls in place.”
Looking back at the past year, on the anniversary of the first confirmed coronavirus case in London, Ferguson revealed that up to a third of Brits â€” “certainly 30 percent” â€” are now believed to have contracted the virus.
And he recalled those frantic weeks in early March 2020, as he and other leading scientists realized the situation was critical and tried to convince the British government a strict lockdown was required.
“We were getting through a little bit of data from the U.K. NHS [National Health Service], which suddenly started to show that the U.K. epidemic was a lot further along than weâ€™d anticipated,” he said. “Basically, we were testing the wrong people … We took a long time to set up sentinel surveillance and comprehensive surveillance in hospitals. But as soon as we did, we realized that we were getting many more people hospitalized with COVID than we’d ever realized … And that meant we had to act much faster.”