UK defends strategy as WHO urges governments to test citizens as ‘backbone’ of coronavirus response: ‘Test, test, test’

Chris Whitty says England will scale up already ‘substantial’ testing efforts 

Andy Gregory
Monday 16 March 2020 23:36 GMT
Coronavirus outbreak labelled as pandemic by World Health Organization

Westminster has defended its coronavirus strategy after the World Health Organisation’s insistence that testing citizens should be the “backbone” of every government’s response.

Countries were urged to “test, test, test” every suspected case on Monday – but the UK has shifted its focus away from testing all potential patients and contact tracing.

“We haven’t seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing, which is the backbone of the response,” said WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, adding social distancing measures were “not enough on their own to extinguish this epidemic”.

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded, and we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected,” he said, insisting that, without testing, cases cannot be isolated and the chain of infection will not be broken.

Afterwards, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty defended the UK’s testing efforts as “substantial” and said the government planned to “scale up” its capabilities.

But hours earlier, it was reported that Public Health England (PHE) would shift its focus from close contacts of those who have contracted the virus, to instead look at outbreaks in contained spaces such as care homes and prisons.

Patients requiring admission to hospital for pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome or flu-like illnesses will also be tested.

The UK is to rely on modelling to provide an estimate of how many people have been infected, with only a small percentage of the population being tested.

A cross-government group has been established to provide estimates on the number of cases in the country.

PHE says this is a “robust surveillance programme ... which will help us to understand the level of virus circulating in the community”.

So far, more than 44,000 people have been tested in the UK. It is hoped PHE will eventually be able to test 10,000 people a day.

Dr Whitty said the government was “very rapidly” developing a test which shows whether people have previously had Covid-19.

Such a test would be “transformational” he said, and would show what proportion of people can get the disease without any symptoms.

Some medics questioned how the government would manage its response to the pandemic without tests to provide the figures on infection within the population. Others looked at how increased testing could be done.

“Accurate testing of all suspected cases would be a great help to the Covid-19 response,” said professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Martin Hibberd.

“This would be best performed, or at least supervised, by PHE to ensure accuracy, but also so that PHE can collate the resultant data.

“South Korea has shown that testing of all people with symptoms can aid in containment, by helping to identify who should fully isolate themselves.

“In addition, accurate antibody testing could inform people whether they are part of the herd immunity that is being built up and thus adjust their behaviour accordingly.

“This large-scale testing is possible, but would perhaps require a new, less central, approach.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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