'Dominic Cummings is right that UK needed to earlier lockdown in autumn 2020' says SAGE expert John Edmunds

SAGE expert John Edmunds Credit: ITV Peston

Dominic Cummings was right to suggest tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the nation had locked down in September and he was right to say the government's strategy at the start of the coronavirus pandemic was wrong, a SAGE expert said.

Epidemiologist John Edmunds, who sits on the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, reacted to some of Cummings' claims on ITV's Peston show after the former adviser gave evidence to MPs about the government's handling of the pandemic on Wednesday.

He said: "We could have reduced the deaths in the autumn wave by a significant margin, yes, if we'd have taken action. It wasn't just a matter of a two-week circuit breaker, that wouldn't have been sufficient, and that wasn't what we said.

"What SAGE was arguing for in September, it was a package of measures that had to be pretty stringent to be put in place to keep R at about 1, rather than allowing it to drift off, but also a circuit breaker to bring the incidents down."

He explained that when the Kent variant appeared late last year, hospitals were already full from the autumn wave.

During a meeting on September 20 between SAGE and prime minister Boris Johnson, Dr Edmunds said he urged the prime minister to "act early" rather than be forced into locking down later.

The SAGE expert said what he told to the prime minister "obviously wasn't sufficient".

Asked if he was surprised Johnson didn't do as he advised, Dr Edmunds said: "Uh, disappointed. Surprised that really very little happened.

"I can’t remember exactly what was announced now, but there was something announced but it was very small measures and that’s not what was necessary."

While the epidemiologist acknowledged the prime minister should not only consider scientific advice as there were other things to think about, he said it was not accurate nor very fair to say that Johnson has always followed the advice of scientists.

Reacting to Cummings' claims that many people, including SAGE experts, had not pressed the panic button early enough at the start of last year, Dr Edmunds said: "Yeah, I think he’s right. Obviously, it’s much easier in hindsight. I think he’s right. I think the strategy at the time was wrong."

He described his reaction to watching part of Cummings' evidence: "My overwhelming feeling at the time was that of sadness really, partly because I remember just how many people died.

"But also just many of us had serious misgivings about the way it was going but it wasn’t our role to set a strategy and I didn’t realise until this morning that we could’ve been pushing at an open door if we’d had come up with more radical alternatives to the strategy in say, the end of February and early March when (Johnson) had his change of mind or realisation."

Asked of Johnson should fully unlock the UK in June, Dr Edmund said: "No... it looks a little bit risky. The Indian variant is taking off in a number of places. Luckily, we’ve still got low levels but it is concerning.

"And we are still not back to normal. We're still at less than half of our normal contact patterns at the moment. So I think that is helping to keep the lid on it, to some extent."

Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick also appeared on ITV's Peston. He was asked if Cummings was lying about how incompetent the prime minister has been.

He replied: "Well, you heard an argument made by one individual, and I'm not going to get into all of the allegations. The prime minister's already said there's going to be a full public inquiry, and that's going to begin next year."

Coronavirus: What you need to know - Listen in for the latest information, advice and analysis on the pandemic

Asked if it was a mistake not to lock down the country in September last year, he said: "Well I think all I can say to you tonight, and to your viewers, is that the prime minister did everything he could to protect life, and he always acted… He always acted in the national interest, as he saw it."

He added that Johnson had "listened to the views of the scientific community, he looked at the cost that comes with lockdowns".

Asked about Cummings' comments on the prime minister's fiancée Carrie Symonds allegedly influencing decisions on public appointments, he said: "Well I have no reason to doubt that public appointments have been made in any other way than they are supposed to be made…"

Peston said: "So he's making stuff up, is what you're saying."

He responded: "They're made by ministers or civil servants as are appropriate, and I think it's wrong to go around making allegations against the prime minister's fiancée, it's not something that I've seen happen, and I think it's a mistake to start casting aspersions on her."