'Shame politicians only act when they see people in hospitals,’ says senior COVID adviser

Watch: Neil Ferguson says politicians only act when they see people in hospitals

One of the government's leading coronavirus advisers has delivered a damning criticism of some elements of the government's handling of the pandemic.

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling helped convince the government to lock down in the first wave last year, said politicians only act when they see patients in hospital.

He said there appeared to have been no consensus between ministers to clamp down on COVID-19's growth last autumn, which led to huge numbers of new infections.

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Although other countries were in a similiar position, Prof Ferguson – who is part of the government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – said he had hoped the UK would have learned lessons from the March outbreak.

"This has been seen across Europe, it’s not just the UK government," he told ITV's Good Morning Britain.

"The biggest mistake was failing to control the rate of growth of infection in the autumn."

He continued: "So we had this problem with ever-rising case numbers and then only reacting really late October and then into November, and that set us up for very high infection levels going through the winter – understandable – and there was a lack of political consensus by that point and as I say, countries like France, Italy, Spain have been in exactly the same position.

"But it’s unfortunate politicians seem to need to see people in hospitals before they can act."

He also suggested that had it been "up to Matt Hancock coming in and Boris Johnson", the government might have acted sooner, but a consensus didn't appear to be present in the cabinet.

However, he said he is "encouraged" by the government's "cautious strategy" so far.

It comes as Conservative MPs began to turn up the pressure on the prime minister, who they want to look at easing and then scrapping lockdown and social distancing restrictions within the next few months.

The COVID Recovery Group of Tory MPs wants the government to lift all legal restrictions in England by the end of April.

Steve Baker, who is part of the group, said the timetable for easing lockdown is tied to the vaccine rollout.

With the government having now given at least one COVID vaccine dose to the 15 million people in the top four priority groups, Baker said two-thirds of the top nine groups should have a dose by Easter.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to a coronavirus vaccination centre at the Health and Well-being Centre in Orpington, south-east London. Picture date: Monday February 15, 2021.
Boris Johnson is coming under pressure to be cautious in easing up and to scrap anti-COVID restrictions as soon as possible. (PA)

"So we’re saying at Easter, venues, pubs, restaurants, hospitality should be open in a COVID-secure way," he told LBC.

"Come 1 May... really we think the starting point must be that all legislative restrictions should come off then and, really, if ministers want to keep restrictions in place the onus is on them to justify restrictions at that point."

But experts have warned against easing up too fast, with Dr Gabriel Scally of the Independent Sage group telling Good Morning Britain that while cases have come down, they have lowered from a "whopping peak so there’s a long way to go still".

He added: "And we do need the cases down... if we are going to open up around the country, we can’t repeat the mistakes that we made in the past by loosening restrictions in places where there still is a lot of circulating virus."

Read more: You won’t need a COVID vaccine passport to go to the pub, Boris Johnson says

Boris Johnson was previously warned to wait until there are fewer than 1,000 new infections a day before lockdown is lifted.

The Daily Mail said Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, was to write to the prime minister asking him to avoid allowing cases to get out of hand again.

And foreign secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News' Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “We have made good progress.

“We don’t want to see that unravel because we go too far too quick.

"We are not making what feels to me like a slightly arbitrary commitment without reviewing the impact that measures have had on the transmission and the hospital admissions of the virus."

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