Coronavirus: UK was too slow to ramp up testing, government's chief scientific adviser admits

‘It’s not scaled as fast as it needs to scale,’ concedes Sir Patrick Vallance

Adam Forrest
Tuesday 14 April 2020 14:46 BST
Chief scientific adviser admits testing hasn't happened quickly enough

The government’s chief scientific adviser has admitted that coronavirus testing should have been ramped up more quickly in the UK.

Sir Patrick Vallance said Public Health England’s testing of suspected Covid-19 cases had started well, but had then failed to increase scale “as fast as it needs to scale”.

The chief scientific adviser also claimed it was too simple to say “testing saves lives”, but conceded that boosting the rate of testing was an important part of managing the pandemic.

“Testing at the beginning was at the right level,” he told ITV on Monday evening. “At the beginning Public Health England got off to a good start in terms of testing to try and make sure they caught people coming into the country with it [coronavirus].”

Sir Patrick added: “I then think it’s not scaled as fast as it needs to scale – and that’s being done now. But I do think testing is an incredibly important bit of this. It needs to be done at scale and it needs to be done rapidly enough to be able to look at outbreaks and isolate.”

Amid criticism over the lack of testing among NHS staff, health secretary Matt Hancock claimed at the weekend that all health and social care workers who need a test will now be able to get one.

Acknowledging the slow rise in NHS testing in recent weeks, the chief scientific adviser said: “There’s no question, in my view, testing is an incredibly important part of how we need to manage this going forward.

“It was something that we raised right at the beginning as something that needed to be in place, and we need to get more testing, and that’s happening at the moment.”

Asked why Germany had done far more widespread testing than the UK, Sir Patrick said it wasn’t possible to “equate” Germany’s relatively high rate of testing with the country’s relatively low number of deaths.

“There are all sorts of reasons why [death] rates may be different in different countries. I don’t think testing alone is the major reason for that,” he said.

“So yes, testing – there’s a lot that we’ve got to get right on that and that’s being looked at now by Public Health England and the Department of Health, and they are getting that right – but I don’t think it’s as simple to say lots of testing saves lives. Because that isn’t quite right I think,” he added.

Responding to Sir Patrick’s comments, prime minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “The government has been very clear on the need to rapidly scale up our testing capacity and that is what we are doing.

“We have spoken throughout about the need to carry out testing. That’s why we have set out a strategy to get to 100,000 by the end of this month.”

The most recent official figures show that 14,506 tests were conducted in the 24 hours to 9am on Monday, including 2,489 tests of NHS staff and their families at 23 drive-through centres across the country, said the spokesperson.

So far, a total of 47,784 health staff and their relatives have been tested, and tests are now being made available to care home staff, with 505 completed to date.

Sir Patrick was also asked why the coronavirus appeared to be disproportionately killing ethnic minorities in Britain.

Labour has called for an inquiry into the higher incidence after a report on the first 3,883 patients critically ill with Covid-19 found that just over a third were non-white, compared with 18 per cent of the total UK population.

The chief scientific adviser said it was something the health experts are still “trying to understand”, adding that it was “particularly noticeable amongst some of the health care practitioners who we’ve seen who have unfortunately succumbed as a result of this”.

At Monday’s Downing Street press conference, Sir Patrick said he expected the number of daily deaths from coronavirus to continue to rise this week, followed by a plateau for a period of two to three weeks. After the plateau, the number of daily deaths should begin to decrease, he added.

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