In Brief

Government scientists considered coronavirus a ‘moderate’ risk just weeks ago

Experts met as cases were already soaring in China and Italy

Government scientists judged coronavirus to be a “moderate risk” to Britain just five weeks ago, despite rising infection rates in China and Italy,

Recently released minutes show that scientists on a Public Health England committee, including the pandemic modeller Neil Ferguson, met on February 21 to discuss the threat.

The Times reports that the experts raised “no objections” to holding the risk level at moderate, despite data from China showing 75,465 confirmed cases of the virus with 2,236 fatalities.

The paper notes that at the time of the meeting, small numbers of deaths had occurred in Iran, France, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea and the crisis on the Diamond Princess cruise ship was at its most serious.

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However, advisers on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group concluded: “Current PHE risk assessment of the disease is moderate. The PHE risk assessment to the UK population is also moderate. This is a composite of what is known about transmission and the impact on public health globally and in the UK.”

The paper adds that minutes show that when the group’s chairman, Peter Horby of Oxford University, asked if anyone thought the risk assessment should change, “no objections were raised”.

After the meeting, one of those present emailed to say he disagreed with the assessment but had been unable to intervene in the discussion due to technical problems.

John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, sent a message saying “the risk to the UK population [in the PHE risk assessment] should be high, as there is evidence of on-going transmission in Korea, Japan and Singapore, as well as in China”.

The risk level has since been raised to “high” on the gov.uk website, a change made between the 12 and 13 March, according to archived web pages.

The revelation comes as 381 coronavirus deaths and 3,009 cases were declared in the UK yesterday, which was “officially Britain's darkest day so far in the ever-worsening crisis”, according to the Daily Mail.

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