Coronavirus: Mass testing earlier ‘would have been beneficial’

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It would have been better to have ramped up testing quicker, the UK’s chief scientific advisor has told MPs assessing the coronavirus response.

Sir Patrick Vallance told the Commons Health Select Committee testing alone would not control the virus.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told MPs limited capacity for tests meant things had to be done differently earlier in the epidemic.

The UK moved away from community tests and contact tracing on 12 March.

Ministers decided to focus testing on patients with suspected Covid-19 in hospitals or those in settings like care homes and prisons.

Asked what he would change about the UK’s response to the virus, Sir Patrick told the committee: “I think that probably we, in the early phases, and I’ve said this before, I think if we’d managed to ramp testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial.

“And, you know, for all sorts of reasons that didn’t happen.

“I think it’s clear you need lots of testing for this, but to echo what Jenny Harries has said, it’s completely wrong to think of testing as the answer.

“It’s just part of the system that you need to get right. The entire system needs to work properly.”

It came as:

  • An NHS app that aims to track the spread of coronavirus is rolled out for the first time, as part of a trial on the Isle of Wight
  • The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) published more details of its discussions about the UK’s next phase of coronavirus restrictions, including concerns over using antibody tests to get people back to work
  • MPs hear that scientific evidence around the usefulness of face masks is “not straightforward” but their use could help prevent spread
  • The number of coronavirus-related deaths in the UK reached 28,734, an increase of 288

Dr Harries said a balance needed to be struck in terms of testing and ramping up capacity in the NHS, adding that “if we had unlimited capacity, and the ongoing support beyond that, then we perhaps would choose a slightly different approach”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock later announced a goal of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April, which the government has struggled to hit in recent days despite an initial success.

Much like the problems getting personal protective equipment for staff, the UK’s record on testing is going to come under scrutiny for years to come.

There are many reasons why other countries, such as South Korea and Germany, had a better testing infrastructure to start with.

But what remains more difficult to understand is why the UK did not act sooner to rectify that.

Certainly rapid progress was made from the start of April when Health Secretary Matt Hancock set the 100,000 tests-a-day target.

But why it took until then to turbo-boost the effort is unclear. The first confirmed case was at the end of January.

By mid-March the UK had to virtually abandon testing in the community – it did not have the capacity, so had to prioritise patients in hospital.

One school of thought is that because the policy at the time was to manage the spread of the virus in the community, widespread testing was not needed to contain outbreaks and suppress the epidemic.

Sir Patrick told the Health Select Committee that evidence face masks prevent the spread of infection from one person to another is “marginal but positive”, adding: “So there is some evidence they can do that.”

He said: “It looks like the major root of infection in this disease is probably droplet spread, rather than through aerosol, but there may be some aerosol components as well.

“Masks may have a marginal positive effect in that situation, or face coverings of some sort might do.”

The new NHS app aims to quickly trace recent contacts of anyone who tests positive for the virus and will be available to people on the Isle of Wight this week.

It is part of the government’s strategy for coming out of lockdown, which aims to have widespread testing and contact tracing in place to monitor and reduce any future outbreaks.

If the trial is successful, the app will be rolled out across the whole of the UK by the middle of May, Mr Hancock said.

But the “centralised” model of the app – meaning there is a central computer server which works out which phones have matched – has raised some privacy concerns.

In other developments:

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