8th April 2020
LONDON (Reuters) - It was early spring when British scientists laid out the bald truth to their government. It was “highly likely,” they said, that there was now “sustained transmission” of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom.
If unconstrained and if the virus behaved as in China, up to four-fifths of Britons could be infected and one in a hundred might die, wrote the scientists, members of an official committee set up to model the spread of pandemic flu, on March 2. Their assessment didn’t spell it out, but that was a prediction of over 500,000 deaths in this nation of nearly 70 million.
Yet the next day, March 3, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was his cheery self. He joked that he was still shaking hands with everyone, including at a hospital treating coronavirus patients.
“Our country remains extremely well prepared,” Johnson said as Italy reached 79 deaths. “We already have a fantastic NHS,” the national public health service, “fantastic testing systems and fantastic surveillance of the spread of disease.”
Alongside him at the Downing Street press conference was Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser and himself an epidemiologist. Whitty passed on the modelling committee’s broad conclusions, including the prediction of a possible 80% infection rate and the consequent deaths. But he played them down, saying the number of people who would be infected was probably “a lot lower” and coming up with a total was “largely speculative.”
The upbeat tone of that briefing stood in sharp contrast with the growing unease of many of the government’s scientific advisers behind the scenes. They were already convinced that Britain was on the brink of a disastrous outbreak, a Reuters investigation has found.
Interviews with more than 20 British scientists, key officials and senior sources in Johnson’s Conservative Party, and a study of minutes of advisory committee meetings and public testimony and documents, show how these scientific advisers concluded early the virus could be devastating.
But the interviews and documents also reveal that for more than two months, the scientists whose advice guided Downing Street did not clearly signal their worsening fears to the public or the government. Until March 12, the risk level, set by the government’s top medical advisers on the recommendation of the scientists, remained at “moderate,” suggesting only the possibility of a wider outbreak.