Public Health England did not increase testing for Covid-19 as quickly as was needed to control the spread of the virus, the government’s chief scientific adviser has suggested.
Sir Patrick Vallance’s comments echo those of Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, who said a week ago that Germany “got ahead” in testing people for Covid-19 and that the UK needed to learn from that.
So far, the government has prioritised tests for seriously ill patients in hospital and frontline NHS staff. But Vallance said testing needed to be done at sufficient scale “to look at outbreaks and isolate”, as has happened in countries such as Germany and South Korea.
“I think at the beginning Public Health England [PHE] got off to a good start in terms of testing to try and make sure they caught people coming into the country with it,” he told ITV’s weekly Coronavirus Q&A show.
“I then think it’s not scaled as fast as it needs to scale – and that’s being done now. But I do think testing is an incredibly important bit of this. It needs to be done at scale, and it needs to be able to be done rapidly enough to look at outbreaks and isolate.”
On 26 March, Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said the World Health Organization’s advice to “test, test, test” was an unnecessary measure to curb the spread of coronavirus in Britain.
“We need to realise that the clue with the WHO is in its title — it’s a World Health Organization,” she explained during a Downing Street press briefing. “And it is addressing all countries across the world, with entirely different health infrastructures … We have an extremely well developed public health system in this country.”
The government’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic has so far focused on using physical distancing measures to delay its spread and increasing NHS capacity. The government aims to reach 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.
A spokesperson for the prime minister said on Monday that testing across the UK was “heading in the right direction”, and that nearly 43,000 NHS staff and their families had been tested.
However, recent graphs from PHE show the UK’s pandemic trajectory is following a similar course to that of Italy, the second-worst hit country in the world in terms of coronavirus-related deaths.
When asked why Germany – which in the week ending 4 April was carrying out an average of 116,655 swab tests a day – had been able to test so many people and keep deaths relatively low, Vallance said testing was “an incredibly important part of how we need to manage this going forward”.
However, he added, there were “all sorts of reasons” why Germany had had only 3,194 deaths at that time, compared with 11,329 in UK hospitals, cautioning that its high volume of testing should not be automatically linked with the low death toll.
In South Korea, officials deployed a “test, trace, isolate” programme to contain the spread of the virus, involving testing tens of thousands of people a day, while placing the sick and those they had come into contact with into strict quarantine.
The country – which has not imposed a lockdown on citizens – has so far reported 222 deaths.