Coronavirus: Senior MP attacks health chiefs for withholding evidence to explain why mass testing abandoned

‘The decision, explicitly, to reject the South Korean approach may be one of the most pivotal decisions made during this pandemic’

Public Health England withholding evidence on mass testing axe, says Greg Clarke

Health chiefs are refusing to disclose evidence to justify the controversial decision to abandon mass testing at the start of the pandemic, a senior MP has protested.

Greg Clark, the chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, attacked Public Health England (PHE) for twice ignoring his request to reveal it – warning an official sanction might follow.

“It is of crucial importance to be able to learn the lessons,” Mr Clark said, at the beginning of a fresh evidence session.

“So it is very regrettable and concerning that this evidence is being withheld from the committee.”

The criticism comes as the decision to end community testing on 12 March – while other countries continued to track and trace potential victims – continues to dog the government.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has blamed “capacity restraints” at the time, but some experts have warned it allowed the pandemic to take hold and led to unnecessary deaths.

A British former director of the World Health Organisation revealed that 44 laboratories had been left idle, accusing PHE of only allowing its own facilities to be used.

Mr Clark, a former cabinet minister, said: “The decision, explicitly, to reject the South Korean approach may be one of the most pivotal decisions made during this pandemic”.

He revealed PHE had been asked to send the committee the evidence behind the decision last month, a request repeated on 1 May when it failed to arrive.

The committee was seeking to find out why “mass testing using multiple laboratories” was rejected in favour of a “more centralised approach”.

The use of private labs was only given the go ahead when Mr Hancock launched his target of 100,000 daily tests by the end of April – a benchmark still not being reached.

Meanwhile, a disease-modelling expert sounded the alarm over any imminent loosening of the lockdown, warning the crucial R number – measuring the spread of infections – was rising again.

Professor John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene, estimated it to be only just below 1 – the figure above which overall cases would be increasing once more – up from 0.6-0.7 two weeks ago.

He blamed cases being “dragged up by hospitals and care homes”, even as community infections fell, saying: “They are not going down at the same rate.”

Crucially, the R number is the most important of the five tests set by the government before restrictions can be relaxed significantly. Boris Johnson admitted there is still a “pandemic” in care homes.

Professor Ian Diamond, the national statistician, revealed he would begin publishing data next Thursday – and then twice a week afterwards – showing what proportion of the population is estimated to have coronavirus.

Both Prof Edmunds and Prof Diamond said they were in the dark about the prime minister’s looming options for easing the lockdown – despite sitting on the advisory Sage committee.

“I haven’t seen it,” Prof Edmunds told the committee, while Prof Diamond said he was “unaware of what will be said on Sunday”.

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