Leading scientist says forecast of 400,000 UK coronavirus deaths is ‘not absurd’

15 February 2020, 08:56

A woman seen on a tube wearing a face mask. A total of nine people in the UK are now being treated for COVID-19
A woman seen on a tube wearing a face mask. A total of nine people in the UK are now being treated for COVID-19. Picture: PA

A top scientist leading the fight against coronavirus has said he believes hundreds of thousands of people in the UK could die from the disease.

Professor Neil Ferguson, of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London said ‘this is the one i’m scared of’ in an interview with Channel 4.

He said: “Our best estimates at the moment is that maybe one per cent of people who get infected might die.'

He insisted that he was not predicting 400,000 deaths but said that the figure is ‘possible’.

Professor Ferguson said that he’d “prefer to be accused of overreacting than under reacting.”

He said: “Given we know a lot about how these viruses are spread we have lots of data from past epidemics.

“Given how transmissible this virus appears to be and that fact that at least all adults can be infected, we have much less data in children, then 60 percent is a reasonable figure.

“Within the first 12 months or so. What we don’t know at the moment is if everybody infected. What proportion might die and what are the risk groups? Our best estimates at the moment is that maybe 1 per cent of people who get infected might die.

“I would much prefer to be accused of overreacting than under reacting. This virus is the one which probably concerns me the most out of everything I've worked on.

Health officials yesterday contacted more than 200 people who attended a conference in central London after it emerged one delegate is suffering from coronavirus.

Public Health England (PHE) sent a letter to those who were at the UK Bus Summit at the QEII Centre in Westminster on February 6, including several MPs, two of whom have now decided to stay mostly at home.

The person taken ill is one of the nine people diagnosed with coronavirus in the UK.

Dr Yimmy Chow, consultant in health protection at PHE, said: "One of our main priorities has been to identify any people who we think have been in close contact with confirmed cases of Covid-19 to provide public health advice, as they may be at slightly increased risk of catching the virus.

"While the degree of contact conference delegates may have had with the case is unlikely to have been significant, we have taken a precautionary approach and informed them of the situation."

Sources said the bus summit case is not linked to the UK's ninth case of coronavirus, who is a Chinese woman.

The Transport Times emailed delegates and enclosed a letter from PHE saying they should take no action if they were well but to stay indoors, avoid contact with others and call NHS 111 if they developed symptoms such as a fever or cough

"While the degree of contact you may have had with the case at the summit is unlikely to have been significant, we are taking a precautionary approach and informing you," the letter said.

The bus conference listed about 250 delegates from the nationwide bus and transport industry.

Among the speakers were buses minister Baroness Vere and former parliamentary under secretary of state for transport Nusrat Ghani.

Labour MP for Nottingham South Lilian Greenwood, who also spoke at the summit, tweeted that she had received PHE's letter and had decided to cancel appointments.

She added: "I'm feeling completely well but to be extra-cautious I'm cancelling my public engagements until 20th February. Sorry for any inconvenience."

Labour MP for Leeds North West Alex Sobel, who also attended the summit, said he was not unwell but had decided to stay at home as a precaution.

He has cancelled engagements until the end of next week.

His office said he had not undergone any coronavirus testing and was not due to be tested.

He said: "Public Health England gave the advice that I should take reasonable precautions.

"Right now I should be at surgeries with constituents. We thought it a reasonable caution to self-isolate until next Wednesday evening.

"I'm fine. I've got no fever. But as you can present after up to 14 days, I've taken these precautionary measures."

Mr Sobel said he only found out about the risk through the media and was "concerned" other attendees may still not know.

Another attendee, who did not wish to be named, said: "We all received an email. The advice was 'just carry on if you're feeling fine, if you're not, lock yourself up'."

He said he had no symptoms.

It comes as United Airlines confirmed it offered assistance at Heathrow Airport on Friday after a passenger fell ill on one flight.

Reports on social media suggested the person involved may have had symptoms of coronavirus.

At least one more plane has been held at Heathrow for checks.

United Airlines said in a statement: "Our team at London Heathrow Airport is providing assistance related to United flight 901 (San Francisco-London Heathrow) today, following reports of an individual becoming unwell onboard.

"The safety of our customers and employees is our highest priority and we continue to work closely with local authorities."

Andy West, from Henley-on-Thames, told PA that passengers were warned by the United plane's captain that they could be on the tarmac for a while because "seven other planes" in the same situation had also landed at Heathrow.

He did not see the ill person or any medics enter the aircraft.

Passengers were allowed to disembark half-an-hour later after filling out forms asking for their contact details and to confirm they did not have any symptoms of coronavirus.

Meanwhile, a Channel 4 employee is among those being tested for coronavirus after feeling unwell following a trip to Asia.

A Channel 4 spokesman said: "On Thursday, a member of staff at Channel 4 who had travelled to Asia within the last month felt unwell.

"As a precautionary measure, they decided to seek medical advice and, in line with the latest public health advice regarding the coronavirus, they were taken to hospital for a precautionary test.

"We have informed our staff of this and continue to follow all the latest public health guidance."

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said on Thursday that many more people in the UK may need to self-isolate to contain the illness, which has been officially named Covid-19.

It comes as it emerged that the woman who is the UK's ninth case of coronavirus took an Uber to A&E after she developed symptoms.

Two staff from Lewisham Hospital in south London are now in isolation at home after coming into contact with the woman.

In mainland China, the death toll from Covid-19 has passed 1,500 after health authorities reported another 143 deaths early on Saturday morning.

That increase saw the total reach 1,523 deaths.

However authorities also said the latest 2,641 daily new cases of the virus represented a "major drop", due to the widespread implementation of a new diagnostic method.

The total number of confirmed cases globally now stands at more than 67,000.