By Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government defended its early handling of the coronavirus epidemic after a Reuters investigation found its scientific advisers were too slow to communicate their growing concerns about the outbreak to the public and ministers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially approved a much more modest response to the outbreak than other major European countries, who took more stringent measures, though he later approved an effective shutdown of the United Kingdom.

Reuters reported this week that the scientific committees that advised Johnson did not study in detail, until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China, where the disease arose in December.

As they watched China impose its lockdown, the British scientists assumed that such drastic actions would never be acceptable in a democracy like the United Kingdom, the Reuters investigation found.

But Patrick Vallance, the government’s top scientific adviser, said that modelling was carried out quickly enough to effectively inform Britain’s reaction to the pandemic.

“It’s not correct that we didn’t model it until March. We modelled it throughout February,” Vallance said at a news conference in Downing Street. “We modelled all of the interventions you have now seen.”

Asked by Reuters why members of the modelling committee said that they had not carried out detailed modelling for a lockdown until March, Vallance said: “I know what happened, and I’ve just told you what happened, and the modelling came in from a variety of different sources.”

The United Kingdom is entering what scientists say is the deadliest phase of the outbreak, with deaths expected to continue to rise over the Easter weekend.

Total UK hospital deaths from COVID-19 rose by 881 to 7,978 as of 1600 GMT on April 8, the government said on Thursday.

Minutes of technical committees reviewed by Reuters also indicate that almost no attention was paid to preparing a programme of mass testing.

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After developing a test for the new virus by January 10, health officials adopted a centralised approach to its deployment, initially assigning a single public laboratory in north London to perform the tests.

But early on there was no wider plan envisaged to make use of hundreds of laboratories across the country, both public and private, that could have been recruited.

Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, who earlier this week admitted that the government should have moved much faster to mass test, said one of the problems was the government wanted to be sure the test worked.

“Initially we had to start off to make sure the test worked,” Whitty said at the Downing Street briefing on Thursday. “We had to be confident about that and then it was rolled out in stages and continues to be rolled out in stages.”

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, William James and Andy Bruce, writing by Alistair Smout; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Stephen Addison)

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