'A brutal reality': Boris Johnson admits UK did not learn lessons of Sars or Mers

PM and health secretary cite lack of test capacity as reason for abandoning contact-tracing in March – despite allegedly developing test by 10 January

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 27 May 2020 23:49 BST
Boris Johnson says UK did not have capacity for test, track and trace ready

Boris Johnson has lamented the “brutal reality” that the UK did not learn the lessons from past virus outbreaks in developing sufficient capacity for testing and tracing.

The prime minister faced a grilling over his government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic from MPs in the Commons Liaison Committee on Wednesday.

While he was subject to intense questioning about the Dominic Cummings scandal, it also came as he announced that England would be starting its new NHS test and trace scheme on Thursday.

Some 25,000 contact-tracers have been recruited to the programme, which the government hopes will allow a further easing of lockdown restrictions in a safe and managed way.

Answering a question from former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the prime minister said: “We did have a test, track and trace operation but unfortunately we did not have the capacity in Public Health England.

“To be absolutely blunt, we didn’t have the enzymes, we didn’t have the test kits, we just didn’t have the volume, nor did we have enough experienced trackers ready to mount the kind of operation they did in some other East Asian countries, for instance.

“And I think the brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of Sars or Mers and we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed.”

Reuters has previously reported that, after developing a test for coronavirus by 10 January, health officials adopted a centralised approach to its deployment, initially assigning a single public laboratory in north London to perform the tests.

But, according to later government statements, there was no wider plan envisaged to make use of hundreds of laboratories across the country, both public and private, that could have been recruited.

Amid criticism the government had been too slow to ramp up testing capacity in the face of the crisis – and to approach many viable manufacturers and laboratories – Matt Hancock set an ambitious target of 100,000 a day by the end of April.

While there is contention as to whether that number of people truly were tested daily by 30 April, or indeed until 10 days later, Mr Johnson has set a second target for a capacity of 200,000 per day by the end of May.

Capacity is currently at 161,000 per day, Mr Hancock revealed on Wednesday as he announced that anyone with symptoms will now be eligible for testing, including children under five years old.

Ministers had faced criticism for abandoning contact-tracing back in mid-March, moving to test only those in hospital with respiratory problems – an issue that Mr Hancock addressed at Downing Street’s briefing on Wednesday as he unveiled the new test and trace scheme.

“Some people will ask ‘why now? Why not launch this programme earlier in the course of the pandemic?’” Matt Hancock said.

“The answer is because we needed to flatten the curve. Right at the start of the epidemic, we had a contact-tracing system in place but as the virus raged towards its peak, the number of infections grew so large that we needed a national lockdown.

“That was the only way to get it under control. Effectively, everyone in the country was contacted and told to stay at home.

“Now, we’ve got the number of new infections each day right down and the number of contacts of those who’ve tested positive is small enough that we can be in touch with everyone who we need to.”

Mr Hancock warned the new system “must become a way of life” and implored the nation to “do their civic duty” – by self-isolating as soon as they are warned they may be infectious and ensuring that they are tested, either by using the NHS website or calling 119.

He added: “This will be voluntary at first because we trust everyone to do the right thing. But, we can quickly make it mandatory if that is what it takes. Because, if we don’t collectively make this work, then the only way forward is to keep the lockdown.”

Mr Johnson had also told the committee that the UK is testing more people than any other country in Europe.

As of 22 May, rolling seven-day average data shows Lithuania had tested 2.25 samples per 1,000 people, Italy had performed 1.05 tests per 1,000 people, and the UK had tested 1.01 people per 1,000 people.

Matt Hancock: 'It is your civic duty to self-isolate'

Hours earlier, Mr Johnson’s spokesperson had admitted he wasn’t aware that the data for the number of people who had been tested has been missing since 23 May.

The Department of Health said it was “temporarily pausing” announcing the figures due to a “small percentage” of duplicates.

Ahead of the test and trace roll-out, British Medical Association chair Dr Penelope Toff warned its success was dependent upon good government communication and rapid identification and test results.

"What will be absolutely crucial is that the government can implement this effectively with all the components in place, so it can run at capacity," Dr Toff said.

"Success will not just hinge on the availability of testing and delivering test results quickly but on rapid identification of contacts and support to enable them to self-isolate.

"There is a very real concern that as funding has only now been made available at local level, and as much of the local contact tracing will need to be done in person, there is the potential for some of these systems to become overwhelmed with the sudden surge in demand.

"It is vital that adequate support is on hand, to enable all directors of public health and Public Health England consultants leading these local systems, to deliver this effectively.

"The safety of the public and key workers is paramount and given the limits of the test itself, self-isolation of those with symptoms and their contacts is even more vital. This will require good communication with the public at a national level.

Additional reporting by agencies

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