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Up to one in ten Londoners “at the outside” may be infected by the coronavirus wave set to hit Britain, a leading expert said today.

Professor Neil Ferguson stressed that the level of infection may vary significantly around the country.

Appearing before the Commons science and technology committee, he was asked by chairman Greg Clark what proportion of the nation was likely to be affected by the epidemic over six months. 

“It’s possible that up to five – at the outside ten per cent of the London population will have…some form of infection in that time,” explained Prof Ferguson, director of the Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College, London.

Professor Neil Ferguson speaking via video link (PA)

With London’s population being around nine million, the scenario could mean up to 900,000 getting some sort of infection from Covid-19, though in most cases the symptoms would be mild.

Once “suppression” measures ordered by the Government, including to stay-at-home and other social distancing, have taken effect then the number of cases is not likely to rise significantly, he added.

Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College (PA)

Professor Ferguson said scientists were reasonably confident that the Government’s surge in intensive care capacity, combined with the lockdown, means that at national level the NHS will not be overwhelmed but would be “extremely stressed” in some parts of the country.

The military has been deployed in a race-against-time to create a new 4,000-bed Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre, London, to take patients if the capitals’ hospitals no longer have space.

Giving evidence by video link, the expert, who himself is recovering from Covid-19, explained that the epidemic was expected to peak in two-and-a-half to three weeks if the current measures work.

He said it was clear that the country could not be in lockdown for a year, and that “the long-term exit from this is clearly the hopes around a vaccine”.

He went on: “The challenge that many countries in the world are dealing with is how we move from an initial intensive lockdown… to something that will have societal effects but will allow the economy to restart.

“That is likely to rely on very large-scale testing and contact tracing.

“It should be stated that the entire world is in the very early stage of developing such strategies.”

MPs were also told that a coronavirus vaccine could be ready in as little as six months, although a timescale of 12-18 months was more likely.

Andrew Pollard, professor of paediatric infection and immunity at the University of Oxford, said there should be support for firms to take the risk to invest in up-scaling manufacturing before testing is completed.

People at Stratford station (Evening Standard / eyevine)

Asked whether 12 months was the earliest possible time that a vaccine could be ready, he added: “I believe that six months is possible.

“But it needs a lot of things to fall in place in order for that to happen, including for the up-scaling to go well, for the trials to be conducted in a way that allows us to demonstrate that there is efficacy.”