UK MPs criticise 'inadequate' govt virus testing

By: AFP      Published: 04:01 PM, 19 May, 2020
UK MPs criticise 'inadequate' govt virus testing
A video grab from footage shows Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock making a statement on the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, during a remote and socially distanced session in the House of Commons in London on May 18, 2020. AFP

British lawmakers on Tuesday heaped fresh pressure on the government for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, calling its testing regime "inadequate" in the early stages.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been criticised for his initial response to the global pandemic, and has faced weeks of pressure about the availability of tests for the virus. The country has seen 34,796 deaths -- the second-highest toll in the world behind the United States -- and 246,406 cases, according to the latest figures.

But despite a recent surge in daily tests and the expansion of eligibility, MPs on a parliamentary committee said: "Testing capacity has been inadequate for most of the pandemic so far. Capacity was not increased early enough or boldly enough. Capacity drove strategy, rather than strategy driving capacity," they said in a 19-page letter to Johnson.

The findings by the House of Commons science and technology committee come after six sessions of evidence involving scientists, public health experts and government advisers, which also looked at other countries' responses to the virus.

On Sunday, Britain carried out 100,678 tests for coronavirus, but only 1,215 tests were performed on March 10 -- just two weeks before a nationwide lockdown was ordered and as cases spiked. MPs said there was "consensus... that testing capacity has been too low". Reacting to the report, work and pensions minister Therese Coffey told the BBC: "The capacity is there."

Care homes

The government has come under sustained pressure about the spread of the virus in care homes, and the testing of frontline health and social care workers. Official data published last week indicated that more than 12,500 deaths of care home residents were linked to the virus.

The committee said abandoning community testing on March 12 left care home residents and workers unable to get tests "at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant". The Guardian on Tuesday cited an unpublished government study that said temporary workers transmitted the virus between care homes.

Ministers have previously claimed to have "thrown a protective ring around care homes". The committee said a failure by government body Public Health England to publish its testing policy was "unacceptable for a decision that may have had such significant consequences", it added.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who maintains care homes were a government priority, on April 2 announced that 100,000 tests a day would be conducted by the end of that month. MPs said that was "more of a personal initiative by the secretary of state" than a decision based on public health or scientific advice.

But they suggested that having that capacity could have given the government "more options" at an earlier stage of the pandemic. Lack of testing capacity was also a factor for the decision to stop contact tracing on March 12, the committee said. Hancock has made an army of contact tracers a key part of a new approach to tackling the spread of the virus, alongside wider community testing and the roll out of a smartphone app.

He announced on Monday that 21,000 contact tracers have been recruited, and testing has been expanded to include everyone aged five and over with symptoms. A new target of 200,000 tests per day has been set for the end of this month. The government aims to use data from all three sources to inform its easing of lockdown measures, including the partial reopening of schools.

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