Coronavirus: Mass testing earlier ‘would have been beneficial’

Scientist in a UK lab Image copyright Getty Images

It would have been “better to have ramped up testing quicker,” the UK’s chief scientific advisor has told MPs, amid questions about the government’s coronavirus response.

Sir Patrick Vallance told the Commons Health Select Committee testing alone would not control the virus.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told MPs limited capacity for tests meant things had to be done differently earlier in the epidemic.

Ministers switched policy on 12 March.

The UK government moved from community testing and tracing contacts of those with the virus, to testing patients with suspected Covid-19 in hospitals or those in settings like care homes and prisons.

Asked what he would change about the UK’s response to the virus, Sir Patrick told the committee: “I think that probably we, in the early phases, and I’ve said this before, I think if we’d managed to ramp testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial.

“And, you know, for all sorts of reasons that didn’t happen.

“I think it’s clear you need lots of testing for this, but to echo what Jenny Harries has said, it’s completely wrong to think of testing as the answer.

“It’s just part of the system that you need to get right. The entire system needs to work properly.”

Dr Harries said a balance needed to be struck in terms of testing and ramping up capacity in the NHS, adding that “if we had unlimited capacity, and the ongoing support beyond that, then we perhaps would choose a slightly different approach”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock later announced a goal of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April, which the government has struggled to hit in recent days despite an initial success.

It came as:

  • An NHS app that aims to track the spread of coronavirus is rolled out for the first time, as part of a trial on the Isle of Wight
  • The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) published more details of its discussions about the UK’s next phase of coronavirus restrictions, including concerns over using antibody tests to get people back to work
  • MPs hear that scientific evidence around the usefulness of face masks is “not straightforward” but their use could help prevent spread
  • The number of coronavirus-related deaths in the UK reached 28,734, an increase of 288

Sir Patrick told the Health Select Committee that evidence face masks prevent the spread of infection from one person to another is “marginal but positive”, adding: “So there is some evidence they can do that.”

He said: “It looks like the major root of infection in this disease is probably droplet spread, rather than through aerosol, but there may be some aerosol components as well.

“Masks may have a marginal positive effect in that situation, or face coverings of some sort might do.”

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