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Coronavirus: How mass testing and health passports could ease UK lockdown

Prime minister says increased testing will ‘unlock puzzle’ of disease, and government mulls ‘immunity certificates’ as country grapples with implications of restrictions on movement

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 02 April 2020 20:18 BST
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Coronavirus: 'It's time to ramp up the tests' says prime minister

Amid mounting anger at lack of testing for Covid-19 in the UK, the government has repeatedly promised to increase levels.

Currently, neither the UK’s vital healthcare workers nor those members of the public concerned they may have the disease have easy access to tests.

Fewer than 153,000 people in the UK have been tested for the virus, according to figures released on Wednesday, and despite months of warnings, the government has been failing to hit its own modest targets of testing 10,000 people a day for the deadly disease.

Meanwhile, countries such as Germany have been testing 70,000 people a day, and ministers have admitted Britain is now at the back of a long queue for essential equipment which is suddenly in high demand around the world.

But testing for the virus has been deemed a vital means of easing the lockdown which has plunged the UK into chaos.

On Thursday afternoon, health secretary Matt Hancock announced a new target of testing 100,000 people a day for Covid-19 by the end of April, and he said tests for frontline NHS staff would “increase significantly” from this weekend.

The government is pursuing two types of tests, both of which would be included in the 100,000 a day figure. The first are the swab tests already being used, which indicate if people have the virus. The second are antibody tests – yet to have their accuracy confirmed – but which are hoped will provide a quick way of finding out whether somebody has already had the virus and therefore has developed immunity.

Mr Hancock said antibody tests would allow the immune to go back to work.

Professor John Newton from Public Health England said antibody tests are ideally done 28 days after an infection, “so the requirement isn’t really with us yet”.

The tests would also form part of a national surveillance programme, which Mr Hancock said is “essential” to know how the virus is spreading and will inform the government about policies on social distancing and ending the lockdown.

So far, antibody tests have not been rolled out to the wider public in any country.

Earlier this week, former WHO director Professor Anthony Costello criticised the UK’s response to the crisis, saying the country already has the capacity to carry out swab tests on hundreds of thousands more people.

He said: “By mass testing, we can detect new outbreaks and there will be much less disruption rather than isolating the whole economy.”

He warned a rapid acceleration was the only way for the UK to avoid a painful six months before society “returns to normal”, as the public was warned on Sunday.

“We must go to mass testing and, when we remove the lockdown, I don’t think it will take six months. All the Asian states – it was six to eight weeks before being able to lift the lockdown,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Following mounting frustration, the prime minister said in a video message on Wednesday evening that upping the level of testing would be the means by which the UK defeats the coronavirus.

He said: “I want to say a special word about testing, because it is so important, and as I have said for weeks and weeks, this is the way through.

“This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end.”

Mr Johnson said access to testing would enable staff currently forced to self-isolate – either because they had symptoms or shared a household with someone who had symptoms – to know if they were safe to work.

Following this video, the government has also indicated people could be given “immunity certificates” to prove they have recovered from coronavirus and would be eligible to leave the lockdown early.

The move, already planned in Germany, will be “considered” if hoped-for antibody tests become available on a mass scale, No 10 has said.

Earlier this week, shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “Germany appears to be leading the way in the testing and we have much to learn from their approach. I’ve repeatedly called for more testing and contact tracing in the UK, and we should be looking at initiatives like this closely.”

Professor David Alexander from UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and an expert in pandemic epidemiology told The Independent the UK must expand its testing programme as well as ensure it is targeted.

He said: “Widespread testing is essential. It will not stop lockdown, but with very careful management it might ease it, as well as helping to contain the disease.

“Epidemiology is not about blanket, untargeted measures. It is about identifying sources of a disease, determining why and how they are sources, and enacting carefully designed measures to deal with the mechanisms. This needs to be done, now, on a much larger scale.”

He said despite 12 years’ knowledge of the likelihood of such a scenario playing out, governments had not heeded advice and are now unnecessarily playing catch up.

“So much of what could have been prepared for in advance is now the subject of frantic improvisation,” he said. “The focus is on reacting to infection more than on preventing it. That is the result of lack of foresight. And yet we have had the full scenario since 2008. Since 2005, we have known what the needs are likely to be.”

He added: “I am sad that normalcy bias, the syndrome of personal invulnerability and cognitive dissonance stopped our leaders from reacting more firmly in the early stages.”

In China, which stunned the world when it locked down first the entire city of Wuhan, and later the entire province of Hubei, as it sought to contain the virus, the government has now begun to ease controls, providing optimism for other countries implementing quarantine lockdowns.

Professor of spatial demography and epidemiology at the University of Southampton, Andrew Tatem, said: “The easing of lockdown restrictions in Hubei and soon in Wuhan offer hope for much of the rest of the world that an end to the stringent control measures can be in sight.

“Along with a few other countries that have been at the forefront of tackling the disease early, China has provided valuable lessons about how the outbreak can be controlled.”

But he warned that though China is beginning to lift restrictions, it remains highly vulnerable to further outbreaks of Covid-19.

He said: “The lessons we can next learn from China are about which restrictions can safely be lifted, when, where, for whom, and what still needs to stay in place.

“While Wuhan suffered a major outbreak, the vast majority of people in China did not contract the disease. This means that the risk of further outbreaks remains very high, especially with so many cases now outside of China and importation becoming a new problem.

“Making sure that the country doesn’t suffer repeated outbreaks requiring new lockdowns will be a major priority for authorities in China, and the rest of the world should look carefully to see what happens and learn from it.”

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