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Professor John Newton told MPs that attempting to copy the successful South Korean mass testing model was seen as “not worthwhile” in the face of fears the outbreak was running out of control. He also admitted that more than half of the coronavirus home-testing kits sent out during the crisis had not been returned. Prof Newton spoke out yesterday at a hearing of the Commons Science and Technology Committee amid growing questions about the Government decision to scrap mass testing in the early weeks of the epidemic’s spread in the UK.
He told the committee the Government switched its strategy towards imposing lockdown rather than tracing infections because scientific modelling warned of an explosion in cases.
“The epidemiology was crucial, we had an increase in the number of cases in March, the advice from modellers was that within a short period we would expect to be having a million cases in the UK and of course if you have a million cases there’s no way, however much contact tracing or testing capacity you have, that you can pursue the South Korea model.
“At that point the Government made the decision to move to lockdown as the most appropriate response to the epidemiology in the UK at the time,” he said.
Prof Newton said there had been a discussion in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) which established that it would “not be worthwhile” to continue contact tracing once community transmission took hold in the UK.
“When in March it became apparent that community transmission was occurring and we had multiple injections, introductions from different countries in the UK, that decision was then enacted,” Prof Newton told MPs.
“It was a decision of course of Government, informed by all its advisers, not just Public Health England.”
He added: “The epidemiology was crucial, we had an increase in the number of cases in March.
“The advice from modellers was that within a short period we would expect to be having a million cases in the UK, and of course if you have a million cases there’s no way, however much contact tracing or testing capacity you have, that you can pursue the South Korea model.
“At that point, the Government made the decision to move to lockdown as the most appropriate response to the epidemiology in the UK at the time.”
Prof Newton also told the Science and Technology Select Committee that more than half of the home testing kits sent out had been returned, but he did not have an up-to-date figure.
He added: “I think certainly more than half, and we would like to get that amount up.
“A lot of the ones which were counted as they left were not home tests, they were the satellite tests sent out to care homes.”
When pressed on the current return rate he said he would provide it to the committee after the session.
Prof Newton added: “I am afraid I don’t have that figure but it can be provided.”
He also told the committee members of the public should not rely on antibody tests bought over the internet.
When asked about new tests that have been made available by firms including Superdrug, he said better tests would be available to the public soon.
He said: “The public need to be aware that those tests are not the same as those we have evaluated and approved for use.
“The laboratory-based tests have a much higher standard of accuracy.
“We wouldn’t recommend at the moment that people rely on the tests that are becoming widely available.
“My advice would be to wait until we have better tests which will be available in a similar form very soon, though they are still under evaluation at the moment.”
At the same committee hearing, the medical director of Public Health England told MPs that widespread testing and contact tracing was stopped in mid-March due to the “sheer scale of cases in the UK”.
Prof Yvonne Doyle, PHE’s medical director said many hundreds of thousands of people had been exposed to coronavirus by the time testing and tracing was stopped around March 12.
Prof Doyle told MPs the policy decision was to very much focus on the NHS in terms of testing and that, given the testing resources available, a decision was taken to stop more widespread community testing and tracing.
She said it was stopped in March “because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK, which had been introduced by multiple introductions, particularly after half-term, and from European countries we now know had large amounts of prevalence themselves”.
She added: “So we have multiple introductions, with many hundreds of thousands of people by March who had now been exposed to this virus in this country.
“Contact tracing could not possibly have had the capacity to address that.
“And with the capacity of lab testing and our contact tracers, we felt the most important thing to do was to focus on where there was national concern, which was the capacity of the NHS, to accrue that testing.”
Prof Doyle told MPs the organisation did not reject the South Korean model of mass coronavirus testing, and had in fact followed a similar path until March.
“We did not reject the South Korean model, in fact we were very interested in what was happening internationally from the get-go.
“The testing capacity and testing profile of PHE’s approach in the contain phase – which is between January and March – was very close to the one of South Korea for quite a long time, into early March.”
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