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Coronavirus UK: Testing abandoned in March as outbreak too big

Hundreds of thousands of coronavirus home-testing kits sent out have been counted but never returned to labs, Public Health England’s testing boss today admitted.

Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE, could only say today that ‘more than half’ of home tests had been completed and posted back.

The Government claims 719,000 tests have been delivered for people to take swabs themselves but a significant chunk of these may never have been done.

The posted home-testing kits form a huge section of the 3.2million coronavirus tests the Department of Health claims to have carried out.

And Health Secretary Matt Hancock would not have hit his lauded target of 100,000 tests in a day by May 1 if the department had not posted out 39,000 the day before. 

If up to half of the tests posted out to people had not been returned to a laboratory that could mean up to around 350,000 of them never completed the analysis – but they were counted anyway by the Government.

Officials claim to have carried out 1.5million tests in their ‘Pillar 2’ system – the mass-testing regime for the public – meaning that if 350,000 were never completed that would represent a fifth of all those tests. 

Professor Newton, speaking in a grilling by MPs on Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee this morning, said it had been the Department of Health’s decision to count tests that had been posted rather than those completed. 

The Department did not confirm the return rate of the home tests. 

In the same tense meeting, Professor Newton and his colleague Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, said Britain abandoned mass testing in March because the country’s outbreak was already too large.

‘Many hundreds of thousands’ of people had the virus after half-term, they admitted, and contact tracing ‘could not possibly’ have prevented the current disaster. 

A revealing meeting with MPs on Parliament’s Science and Technology also found:

Home tests have been available since the end of April but Professor Newton said he didn’t know how many people who ordered them were actually returning them to the labs.

When asked what the return rate was, Professor Newton hesitated at length before saying: ‘Certainly more than half.’

Pressed again by Conservative MP Greg Clark, chair of the committee, Professor Newton added: ‘I’m afraid I don’t have that figure.’

The fact that up to 50 per cent of the tests may not be getting sent back to labs for analysis suggests that the number of tests the Government is claiming to do each day could be wildly over-estimated.

Professor Newton, defending PHE’s involvement, said the Department of Health took the decision to count a test that had been posted.

Labour MP Graham Stringer asked what the definition of a test was and said: ‘Clearly, posting a test is not a test.’ 

Professor Newton replied: ‘The way tests are counted [was] discussed with officials at the Department of Health and we were advised by the officials in the Department of Health on the appropriate method of counting the tests and that’s what we did.’

Greg Clark, the meeting’s chair, cut in: ‘They advised you, you didn’t advise them?’ 

‘No, they advised us, absolutely, yes,’ Professor Newton said.

Mr Stringer asked with a raised eyebrow: ‘Do you think it’s appropriate? Counting posted letters as opposed to real tests?’

And Professor Newton replied: ‘Well, I think the important thing is that they’re only counted once.

‘The basis on which we were advised  that the decision had been made was that the test should be counted at the point where the programme had control of what happened, and that was the point at which the tests were sent out and made available for testing.

‘The key thing is that a very large number of tests are now being conducted and, whichever way you count them, it’s a large number of tests – it’s a huge increase.’ 

In the meeting the PHE bosses also admitted that Britain had to abandon its South Korea-esque approach to testing and tracing infections in March because the UK’s outbreak was simply too large.

South Korea has earned global acclaim for its policy of intensively testing and isolating everyone in the population suspected of having COVID-19.

This means the cases there have been contained to relatively small areas and the number of them is extremely low (around 11,000 confirmed cases).

Britain had wanted to follow the same strategy but, by the time officials realised the virus was spreading in the UK, it was already too late.

Professor Doyle said today that ‘mass contact tracing needed to cease in March’.

She explained: ‘It was a decision that was come to because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK which had been introduced by multiple introductions, particularly after half term, from European countries we now know had large amounts of prevalence themselves.’

Professor Doyle is believed to be referring to Italy in this point – it was around half-term that the outbreak in the country’s Alpine ski resorts took hold and rattled Britain’s schools, many of which had sent pupils there on trips during the week off.

‘So we had multiple introductions,’ Professor Doyle added, ‘with many hundreds of thousands of people in March who had now been exposed to this virus in this country.

‘So 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.’ 

On March 12 Professor Chris Whitty announced that the Government was stopping testing of members of the public for COVID-19.

Until then, its policy was to test everyone suspected of having the virus if they had been to a country where cases had been confirmed.

But as the outbreak spiralled out of control, the Government decided to only test people who were in hospital as patients or staff.

That persisted until late April, when officials began to widen the criteria again. 

He and and Professor Doyle were grilled by politicians on the committee, who accused PHE of being ‘opaque’ about decisions being made by Government.

Mr Clark said that documents promised to the committee weeks ago had still not been given to MPs, despite having been used to inform SAGE, which advises Downing Street.

In the meeting Professor Doyle repeatedly refused calls from Mr Clark to send them all of the documents that had informed the decision to stop mass testing and tracing.

Mr Clark said: ‘A commitment was given to provide that assessment, that contemporary assessment, many weeks have gone by, it hasn’t been provided.’

Professor Newton said some of the information was in the public domain in documents that were published on PHE’s website.

He added that 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.  

‘There was discussion in fact with SAGE in February,’ Professor Newton said, ‘which established that when community transmission was established in the country that it would not be worthwhile to carry on with contact tracing, which is in fact the South Korean model. 

‘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. 

‘It was a decision of course of Government, informed by all its advisers not just Public Health England.’

In the meeting, Professor Newton said he does not recommend that people use the antibody tests which Superdrug has started selling.

The high street giant this week announced it was selling blood testing kits so people could find out if they have had the virus already and recovered.

The tests are made by the same company that is producing one of two tests approved by PHE for government use – Abbott – but they are being used differently. 

Superdrug’s service requires people to take their own blood sample at home and post it to a private laboratory, while the Government has only approved the tests for use by a healthcare professional. 

Professor Newton said: ‘The public needs to be aware that those tests are not the same as the tests that we have evaluated and approved for use.

‘The laboratory-based tests do have a much higher standard of accuracy and we wouldn’t recommend, at the moment, that people rely on the tests which are widely available. 

‘My advice would be to wait until we have better tests which will be available in similar form relatively soon, although those are still under evaluation at the moment.’ 

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