The UK abandoned coronavirus testing in March because the outbreak was already out of control and hundreds of thousands of people were infected, officials have admitted.
Public Health England bosses, who were grilled by MPs this morning, admitted that officials wanted to follow the strategy of South Korea to keep a lid on the pandemic.
But shortly after the February there were ‘many hundreds of thousands’ of people infected with COVID-19 and trying to test them all would have been futile.
At the time the Government was managing to test fewer than 2,000 people per day.
As a result, directors at Public Health England said, it was ‘not worthwhile’ to continue trying to find and isolate every case of COVID-19 and officials.
The chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, publicly announced on March 12 that the Government would no longer test anyone outside of hospitals.
The Government has been heavily criticised for building its testing capacity too slowly, with experts saying better testing could have helped to contain the virus and save lives.
Current testing efforts are on a much greater scale but PHE this morning revealed that huge numbers of people sent home testing kits are not returning them.
The posted kits are counted as a test in the Government’s much-heralded daily numbers, but Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE, could only say ‘certainly more than half’ of the tests are currently returned to the lab.
A revealing meeting with MPs on Parliament’s Science and Technology also found:
- Professor John Newton admitted huge numbers of home testing kits are not being returned to labs from members of the public, saying only that the return rate was ‘certainly more than half’;
- Public Health England has refused to give MPs some of the scientific papers it submitted to SAGE, despite repeated requests;
- Conservative MP Greg Clark accused PHE of ‘a degree of opacity of the basis on which decisions were made to pursue our testing strategy’;
- PHE passed the buck on various decisions, from that of stopping public testing, of refusing the help of private laboratories, and of how to count the number of tests – all these decisions, bosses said, were taken by the Department of Health;
- Professor John Newton, PHE’s testing tsar, urged members of the public not to buy antibody tests from Superdrug or any other private companies selling them;
- The door is still open for possible ‘immunity certificates’ when scientists understand whether people are safe from re-infection after recovering;
- School reopenings should be taken on an individual basis, Professor Doyle said, with some schools ready earlier than others.
Professor Yvonne Doyle and Professor John Newton were today grilled by MPs and defended Publlic Health England’s actions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the Department of Health took the major decisions while PHE provided specialist advice
South Korea has earned global acclaim for its policy of intensively testing and isolating everyone in the population suspected of having COVID-19.
This means the cases there have been contained to relatively small areas and the number of them is extremely low (around 11,000 confirmed cases).
Britain had wanted to follow the same strategy but, by the time officials realised the virus was spreading in the UK, it was already too late.
Professor Doyle said today that ‘mass contact tracing needed to cease in March’.
GOVERNMENT’S TESTING CHIEF SAYS PEOPLE SHOULD NOT BUY DIY ANTIBODY TESTING KITS
The Government’s testing coordinator has urged the public to wait for an approved home antibody testing kit rather than buying one off the internet.
Professor John Newton told the Commons Science and Technology Committee the public should wait for an approved home test which is currently being evaluated.
The Government announced on Thursday that more than 10 million antibody kits were being bought for use in hospitals and care homes.
It comes after high street chains including Superdrug began to offer a home antibody test kit for £69.
When asked about the new home tests, Professor Newton said better tests would be available to the public soon.
He said: ‘The public need to be aware that those tests are not the same as those we have evaluated and approved for use.
‘The laboratory-based tests have a much higher standard of accuracy. We wouldn’t recommend at the moment that people rely on the tests that are becoming widely available.
‘My advice would be to wait until we have better tests which will be available in a similar form very soon, though they are still under evaluation at the moment.’
She explained: ‘It was a decision that was come to because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK which had been introduced by multiple introductions, particularly after half term, from European countries we now know had large amounts of prevalence themselves.’
Professor Doyle is believed to be referring to Italy in this point – it was around half-term that the outbreak in the country’s Alpine ski resorts took hold and rattled Britain’s schools, many of which had sent pupils there on trips during the week off.
‘So we had multiple introductions,’ Professor Doyle added, ‘with many hundreds of thousands of people in March who had now been exposed to this virus in this country.
‘So contact tracing could not possibly have had the capacity to address that and, with the capacity of lab testing and our contact tracers, we felt the most important thing to do was to focus on where there was national concern, which was the capacity of the NHS, to accrue that testing.’
On March 12 Professor Chris Whitty announced that the Government was stopping testing of members of the public for COVID-19.
Until then, its policy was to test everyone suspected of having the virus if they had been to a country where cases had been confirmed.
But as the outbreak spiralled out of control, the Government decided to only test people who were in hospital as patients or staff.
That persisted until late April, when officials began to widen the criteria again.
TOP SCIENTIST TEARS INTO UK’S CRISIS RESPONSE
A Nobel Prize-winning scientist tore into Boris Johnson’s leadership during the coronavirus crisis today, claiming it was not clear ‘who is actually in charge of the decisions’.
Sir Paul Nurse said Britain has been left on the ‘back foot’ with a lack of clear planning that left it ‘firefighting through successive crises’, in a scathing attack on the political establishment.
Sir Paul, the chief executive of the distinguished Francis Crick Institute, said the country had been ‘increasingly playing catch-up’ and scientists and politicians should lay out ‘a much clearer publicly-presented strategy’ to tackle the pandemic.
Sir Paul’s intervention came as the Government faces increasing pressure over its handling of the pandemic. It is facing ongoing criticism over the rate of deaths in care homes, a decision to abandon widespread testing early on and the slow roll out of a new testing regime.
Last night Mr Johnson was forced to u-turn over a widely unpopular decision to make foreign NHS and care staff pay a surcharge to access healthcare in the UK, while working to save British lives.
Geneticist Sir Paul, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2001, told the BBC’s Today Programme: ‘I’m not completely convinced that we are actually being quite clear in having good leadership.
‘The question I keep asking myself is: Do we have a proper Government system in here that can combine tentative knowledge, scientific knowledge, with political action?
‘And the question I’m constantly asking myself is: Who is actually in charge of the decisions? Who is developing the strategy and the operation and implementation of that strategy?’
Home tests are now available but Professor John Newton said he didn’t know how many people who ordered them were actually returning them to the labs.
When asked directly what the return rate is, Professor Newton hesitated before saying: ‘Certainly more than half.’
Asked again by Greg Clark, chair of the meeting, Professor Newton added: ‘I’m afraid I don’t have that figure.’
The fact that up to 50 per cent of the tests may not be getting sent back to labs for analysis suggests that the number of tests the Government is claiming to do each day could be wildly over-estimated.
Tens of thousands of tests have been posted to people’s homes since the service became available around a month ago, and tens of thousands may have never been analysed, Professor Newton’s comments suggest.
He and and Professor Doyle were grilled by politicians on the committee, who accused PHE of being ‘opaque’ about decisions being made by Government.
Mr Clark said that documents promised to the committee weeks ago had still not been given to MPs, despite having been used to inform SAGE, which advises Downing Street.
In the meeting Professor Doyle repeatedly refused calls from Mr Clark to send them all of the documents that had informed the decision to stop mass testing and tracing.
Mr Clark said: ‘A commitment was given to provide that assessment, that contemporary assessment, many weeks have gone by, it hasn’t been provided.’
Professor Newton said some of the information was in the public domain in documents that were published on PHE’s website.
He added that there had been a discussion in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which established that it would “not be worthwhile” to continue contact tracing once community transmission took hold in the UK.
REOPENING PUBS AND RESTAURANTS WOULD NOT RISK SECOND WAVE, EXPERT SAYS
Pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues may be safe to reopen immediately without risking a spike in the coronavirus infection rate, according to a top scientist.
Sunetra Gupta, a professor at the University of Oxford, claims there is a ‘strong possibility’ businesses would be able to welcome customers once more, and avoid the kind of catastrophic consequences the government has warned could occur if lockdown restrictions aren’t eased in steady phases.
Furthermore, she claimed long-term social distancing in fact makes the public more vulnerable to infectious diseases, by keeping them unprotected from pathogens.
A study by Imperial College London, led by Professor Neil Ferguson, warned in March as many as half a million people could die in the UK if a strict lockdown wasn’t enforced.
However, Professor Gupta and her team at Oxford produced an alternative model, suggesting that half of all Brits could have already been exposed to Covid-19 and that the true infection fatality rate may be as low as 0.1 per cent.
‘There was discussion in fact with SAGE in February,’ Professor Newton said, ‘which established that when community transmission was established in the country that it would not be worthwhile to carry on with contact tracing, which is in fact the South Korean model.
‘When in March it became apparent that community transmission was occurring and we had multiple injections, introductions from different countries in the UK that decision was then enacted.
‘It was a decision of course of Government, informed by all its advisers not just Public Health England.’
In the meeting, Professor Newton said he does not recommend that people use the antibody tests which Superdrug has started selling.
The high street giant this week announced it was selling blood testing kits so people could find out if they have had the virus already and recovered.
The tests are made by the same company that is producing one of two tests approved by PHE for government use – Abbott – but they are being used differently.
Superdrug’s service requires people to take their own blood sample at home and post it to a private laboratory, while the Government has only approved the tests for use by a healthcare professional.
Professor Newton said: ‘The public needs to be aware that those tests are not the same as the tests that we have evaluated and approved for use.
‘The laboratory-based tests do have a much higher standard of accuracy and we wouldn’t recommend, at the moment, that people rely on the tests which are widely available.
‘My advice would be to wait until we have better tests which will be available in similar form relatively soon, although those are still under evaluation at the moment.’
How the UK’s testing regime collapsed into chaos
The UK’s testing regime is under the microscope after ministers appeared too slow to act while today the UK still has no fully functioning trace and trace app despite already easing the lockdown.
March 12 is viewed as the lowest point of the crisis when the Government dropped community testing despite experts around the world warning that testing every case was the only way to cut infections and save lives.
The Government has been damned by MPs for still not explaining who took the decision – or exactly why – although a lack of capacity and a lack of control over the virus’ spread are the likeliest answers.
This is how the testing scandal has unfolded:
January 31: First confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK are two Chinese nationals staying in York while sightseeing. The Department of Health pledges to test anyone who becomes ill with the virus.
February 1: China reports asymptomatic cases of coronavirus, making the testing of health workers crucial because they could be spreading the virus unknowingly. An outbreak of COVID-19 had already swamped the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan. A British man on board would later die.
February 21: As the virus continues to spread across the globe, the UK Government experts conclude at a meeting that the disease is still only a ‘moderate’ threat to the UK. Yet in Lombardy, Italy, clusters of cases began to emerge before the north of the country was engulfed completely.
March 3: South Korea manages to reduce the number of Covid-19 infections to 851 on March 3 by effectively tracking people infected with COVID-19 using an app and testing. By the end of March there would be less than 20 cases per day.
Doctors urge other countries to adopt their model.
March 11: Health Secretary Matt Hancock says he is ‘rolling out a big expansion of testing’ but fails to give a timetable and says 1,215 people have been tested for coronavirus in the UK.
March 12: 24 hours later Boris Johnson was accused of mixed messages after saying that health workers will no longer test people for the virus in their homes, only when they are admitted to hospital.
Anyone with symptoms, but able to care for themselves at home, would not be tested and it marked the end of the policy to ‘contact trace’ everyone with symptoms on, as the government’s response moves from ‘containment’ into a ‘delay’ phase.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said: ‘It is no longer needed to identify every case, so we will pivot testing capacity to identify people in hospitals with symptoms to ensure they don’t pass it on.’
Critics have said that this is the day the Government lost control and conceded defeat on testing as cases increased and they didn’t have the capacity to test every person.
Downing Street has always refused to say who took the fateful decision to halt testing in the community on March 12, with many claiming it was this decision that led to it sweeping through communities and care homes.
March 13: Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance suggests the strategy is not to ‘suppress’ coronavirus completely but ‘reduce the peak’ as up to 60 per cent get infected. He says that means the UK will ‘build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease’.
March 16: Boris Johnson urges Britons to follow ‘social distancing’ guidelines as well as isolating when they have symptoms, in a change of policy after modelling found the death toll could be much higher than previously estimated.
The WHO warns on slow progress with testing, saying you ‘cannot fight a fire blindfolded’ and urges countries to ‘test, test, test’.
March 17: There was more confusion as Patrick Vallance tells a Commons committee testing numbers should be higher. ‘I think we need a big increase in testing, and that is what I am pushing for very hard.’
March 18: Amid growing criticism, the PM declares that there will be a big expansion of tests from under 5,000 a day to 25,000. He also sets an ambition of 250,000 tests a day, although this includes potential mass antibody tests for whether people previously had the disease.
March 21: Downing Street sends an email to research institutions begging for machines needed to process testing samples. No10 denies this was the first time it had raised the idea.
March 27: Mr Johnson and Matt Hancock announce they have tested positive for coronavirus. Prof Whitty goes into self-isolation with symptoms.
March 29: Cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Michael Gove hail news that the UK is now carrying out 10,000 tests a day.
April 1: It emerges that the UK has still not carried out 10,000 tests in a day, despite apparently having the capacity to do so.
In Germany a single lab in Cologne was carrying out 10,000 tests itself. Germany would soon ramp up to 500,000 tests a week.
April 2: Matt Hancock sets a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. At the same time a goal of 25,000 tests a day by the middle of April is quietly dropped.
April 5: The PM’s official account causes confusion by tweeting that the target is for 100,000 people to be tested a day, rather than 100,000 tests as other ministers have suggested. Many people need more than one test in a day for clinical reasons, such as to confirm results.
April 6: Mr Johnson is admitted to hospital as his symptoms fail to subside and would later spend days in intensive care.
April 30: Mr Hancock declares victory with 122,000 tests in a day. However, it emerges that the government has been counting tests posted out but not actually completed.
That is despite Mr Johnson and others stating the numbers are for tests ‘carried out’.
The numbers tumble below the target again in the following days, although the government insists capacity remains in place.
May 5: Trials of an NHSX app to track who has been in proximity to infected people begin on the Isle of Wight. Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance admits ramping up testing earlier would have been ‘beneficial’.
May 18: It emerges the app will not be ready for national use by ‘mid-May’ as planned, although Downing Street insists track and trace can start without it.
Mr Hancock announces that everyone over the age of five displaying coronavirus symptoms can now apply for a test, although key workers and patients will be prioritised.
May 19: A furious blame game erupted over who was to blame for coronavirus blunders on testing and care homes were down to ‘wrong’ science advice.
The Science and Technology Committee found hospital staff, care home workers and residents were put at risk because of a lack of capacity for screening ‘when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant’.
The Department of Health and Public Health England have been pointing the finger at each other.