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A “Chinese wall” between UK officials and scientists in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic meant the experts had “almost no visibility” of the government’s operational preparedness, a former leading scientific adviser has claimed.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a former member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told the coronavirus public inquiry on Tuesday he was “not actually aware of what the government was considering and wasn’t considering at the time”.

Ferguson, whose study at Imperial College in mid-March 2020 helped persuade ministers to impose an aggressive lockdown strategy, said the lack of communication became such a “hindrance” that he felt compelled to privately warn government representatives at meetings in early March 2020: “‘Do you know what this is going to be like?’”

The inquiry is examining the UK’s response to the pandemic, including the decisions to lock down and introduce other social distancing measures, testing and contact tracing, and masking. It will last at least until 2026.

During several hours of questioning, Ferguson told the inquiry there was a “Chinese wall” between the small group of Sage modellers and the government’s emergency committee, Cobra. 

He said it had not been made clear to the independent members of Sage, for example, that healthcare demand exceeding NHS capacity was an “absolute red line” for the government until March 14. 

“The artificial divide between scientific advice and then operational planning and response was a hindrance,” he said. “We had very little visibility of what was going on in terms of preparedness within government.”

John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also raised concerns privately in March 2020, Ferguson claimed.

“That was about the time where both John Edmunds and myself got concerned about the slight air of unreality of some of the discussions, and started talking in the margins to government attendees, saying: ‘Do you know what this is going to be like?’” he said.

Edmunds added that he had felt “some in government hadn’t really comprehended the figures, or didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was going to be”.

Ferguson, who resigned from the government’s top science advisory team in May 2020 after breaking social distancing rules, denied on Tuesday that he had sought to play a role “in the determination of policy” and imposition of the UK’s first lockdown.

“I don’t think I stepped over that line to say ‘we need to do this now’. What I tried to do was, at times — which was stepping outside the scientific advisory role — to try and focus people’s minds on what was going to happen and the consequences of current trends.”

Professor Steven Riley, director-general of data and analytics at the UK Health Security Agency, told the inquiry on Tuesday that Britain’s first lockdown on March 23 2020 came too late. The government could have reduced the death toll by introducing the measures around March 9, he said. 

The Health Foundation think-tank also submitted evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday, warning that a lack of health service capacity constrained the NHS’s response to the pandemic.

“Without sustained investment in increasing resilience, response to future health threats are likely to be similarly hampered,” it warned.

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