NHS 'won't cope' if infection rate continues at current rate, scientist warns

The NHS won’t be able to cope if coronavirus cases continue to rise at the current rate, the architect of the March lockdown has warned. 

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to country being shut down in the spring, said that the Government may have no choice but to introduce even stricter measures unless case numbers begin to fall substantially. 

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the influential scientist said while infections among 18 to 21-year-olds were falling, they were continuing to rise in other age groups.

‘Unfortunately, in every other age group case numbers continue to rise at about the same rate they were. There are little hints of slowing, for instance in the North East of England, but we are not seeing the sort of slowing that we really need to to get on top of this,’ he said.

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‘It is a worrying situation. We now have 8,000 people in hospital with Covid. That is about a third of the level we were at the peak of the pandemic in March.

‘If the rate of growth continues as it is, it means that in a month’s time we will above that peak level in March and that is probably unsustainable.

‘We are in a critical time right now. The health system will not be able to cope with this rate of growth for much longer.’

Professor Ferguson’s stark warning came after new figures released yesterday showed the second wave of infections may be beginning to slow. 


The UK’s R number has dropped from between 1.3 to 1.5 to between 1.2 and 1.4 while the Office for National Statistics infection study also showed growth might be slowing. 

Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire and South Yorkshire have now all been placed under tier three restrictions which include a ban on households mixing, except in parks and wide open spaces. 

But further action, including the closure of schools to older pupils, may still be needed, according to Professor Ferguson. 

He said: ‘That (banning households mixing) should have a significant effect but as yet we have been unable to see it definitively.

‘If we go beyond that there is a limit to what we can do in terms of reducing contacts, short of starting to target, for instance, the older years in schools and sixth form colleges where we know older teenagers are able to transmit as adults.

‘Of course nobody wants to start moving to virtual education and closing schools even partially. The challenge may be that we are not able to get on top of the transmission otherwise.’

When asked about whether he thought families would be able to spend Christmas together, Professor Ferguson said it will be a ‘political judgment’ whether restrictions are relaxed over the festive period. 

Yesterday an expert who sits on the Government’s scientific advisory committee (SAGE) said it was ‘extreme wishful thinking’ to think families could celebrate as normal, if things continue as they are. 

Professor John Edmunds said only radical action now can secure a ‘relatively safe and normal’ Christmas. 

Professor Ferguson told the BBC allowing people to mix even for a day would risk infection rates rising. 

‘It risks some transmission and there will be consequences of that. Some people will die because of getting infected on that day,’ he said.

‘But if it is only one or two days the impact is likely to be limited. So that is really a political judgment about the cost versus the benefits.’

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