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The UK was “relatively blind” to the spread of coronavirus in the community at the start of the pandemic, a top scientist has said, warning that the outbreak is “far from over”.

Imperial College London’s Professor Neil Ferguson, who used to advise the Government, said there is “illusion out there that we are past the worst”.

“We were, in retrospect, one of the most heavily seeded countries with infection in Europe,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I would say, before we make international comparisons though, just bear in mind we are still very early into this pandemic – there’s a bit of an illusion out there that somehow we are past the worst.

“In this country we’ve probably had no more than 8 per cent of the population infected.

“This is far from over, so I think lessons can be learned from what happened in the UK up to now, but I would prefer to focus on getting the next six months right before looking back in earnest.”

Mr Ferguson said testing was not ramped up fast enough early on in the crisis, leaving the country “blind” to the spread of the virus in the community.

“Without a doubt we didn’t ramp up testing fast enough and therefore we were relatively blind in late February and early March about truly how much infection was happening in the community in this country. brought in from Spain and Italy and other countries,” he said.

“It was only once we started hospital surveillance that we really got a good handle on that, and from that point onwards we acted very quickly; however, it was just a little too late.”

As lockdown is tightened in the city of Leicester, Mr Ferguson said it is “inevitable” that there will be further local outbreaks in the UK, warning that Bradford and Doncaster are “clearly of concern”.

“It’s inevitable we will (have further local outbreaks), we are relaxing lockdown rules and that means that contacts in the population are going up and that’s a very variable process,” Mr Ferguson said.

Asked about Bradford and Doncaster, he said: “Those are areas, where not as high as Leicester, but they have some of the highest numbers of cases per 100,000 of the population, which is the relevant measure, so they’re clearly of concern.”

Echoing Mr Ferguson’s warning, a scientist advising the Government on its coronavirus response has warned that more local lockdowns should be expected.

Significant numbers from the coronavirus lockdown

Oxford University’s Professor Peter Horby, who chairs the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group (Nervtag), was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if the public should brace for more local outbreaks.

“Unfortunately I think we should. We’ve seen the epidemic is focal, which is often the case, it’s not the same in all places,” he said.

“And we saw that London unfortunately led the way in the UK and now Leicester is unfortunately leading the way and we can expect more of that, so I think there will have to be local responses to local outbreaks.”