Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tore into Boris Johnson today over the Government’s fateful decision to scale down coronavirus testing in March, only for it later to be deemed vital to beating the pandemic.
The two party leaders clashed over the pandemic as they faced each other for the first time at Prime Minister’s Question in the hushed, court room-like surroundings of the mostly-empty House of Commons.
The Prime Minister admitted contact tracing – where those suspected of having the virus are tracked down and tested – was stopped in mid-March as the transmission of coronavirus from individuals in the UK meant that ‘it exceeded out capacity’.
It came after the Government’s chief scientist conceded Britain should have done mass coronavirus testing on the public at the beginning of the crisis and carried it on.
Britain’s death toll climbed to the highest in Europe last night in one of the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Two official measures revealed our figures had surpassed Italy’s which had previously been the worst-affected nation on the continent.
Facing Mr Johnson, Sir Keir said: ‘Contract tracing was happening in the UK but it was abandoned in mid-March. We were told at the time that this was because it was quote ‘not an appropriate mechanism’ but yesterday the deputy chief medical officer said it was to do with testing capacity.
‘So can the Prime Minister just clarify the position for us?’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tore into Boris Johnson today over the Government’s fateful decision to scale down coronavirus testing in March, only for it later to be deemed vital to beating the pandemic
The two party leaders clashed over the pandemic as they faced each other for the first time at Prime Minister’s Question in the hushed, court room-like surroundings of the mostly-empty House of Commons
Mr Johnson replied: ‘As I think is readily apparent Mr Speaker to everybody who studied the situation and I think as the scientists would confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that the tracing capacity that we had, that had been useful as he rightly says in the containment phase of the epidemic, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant since the transmission from individuals within the UK meant that it exceeded our capacity then.
‘Now the value of the testing, tracking and tracing operation that we’re setting up now is that as we come out of the epidemic and as we get the new cases down, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country and thereby to drive down the epidemic.’
Mr Johnson was the latest minister to admit the UK could not handle enough testing at the start of the pandemic.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Security Minister James Brokenshire both made similar confessions in interviews today.
The admissions sparked criticism over how testing was handled.
Senior Lib Dem MP Layla Moran said: ‘The Government has admitted what we all knew already: testing did not begin quickly enough.
‘Our country has paid a devastating price for this, and in the wake of the crisis we need an inquiry to examine the delays to testing, as well the ongoing lack of PPE for frontline workers.’
Asked whether, had there been the capacity, track-and-tracing should have continued, Mr Brokenshire told the BBC’s Today programme: ‘Would there have been benefit in having that extra capacity, as Patrick Vallance highlighted yesterday? Yes.
‘The challenge that we had is that we have some fantastic laboratories, some fantastic expertise, but it has been the capacity constraints that we have had, and therefore how that posed challenges.’
Mr Hancock this morning said it would have been good if the UK had had the diagnostic testing capability enjoyed by Germany, but insisted the UK had caught up.
He said: ‘The Germans started with this enormous diagnostics industry. But if you look at other countries around the world we are miles ahead on testing and we are now one of the world leaders.
‘It is true that Germany has a very high capacity – about the same as ours. So we have basically caught up with Germany that started with this massive capability. We are miles ahead of South Korea now. Absolutely.’
The UK Government has only allowed members of the public to get coronavirus tests from last week, and there are still restrictions on who is eligible, even if they have symptoms (Pictured: A woman has a nasal swab taken at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge)
Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, admitted it ‘would have been beneficial’ for the UK to have testing ramped up weeks earlier than it did
Government data last night showed there had been 29,427 deaths in hospitals, care homes and the community – a rise of 693 in one day.
But a second set of figures from the Office for National Statistics put the death toll at 32,375 – once numbers from Scotland and Northern Ireland had been included – taking the UK above Italy.
When the first cases of the coronavirus appeared in the UK every person suspected of having it was being tested and any positive cases would be quarantined in a specialist disease hospital.
As the infection spread, however, the Government gave up trying to test everyone.
On March 12, officials announced testing would be limited to patients and staff in hospitals so that authorities could focus on preparing hospitals for disaster.
That policy continued for six weeks until April 28, when testing was expanded to key workers and over-65s with symptoms, and later to those without signs of the illness.
Speaking to MPs in Parliament’s Health Select Committee yesterday, Sir Patrick said: ‘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.
‘For all sorts of reasons that didn’t happen.’
One former World Health Organization director, commenting on the lack of focus on testing, said: ‘This should not have happened’.
A former director at the WHO and now academic at University College London, Professor Anthony Costello, said the UK should never have let testing slip.
He said on Twitter: ‘On March 12 we stopped all community testing at a time when there were less than 10 deaths and only 500 confirmed cases countrywide.
‘Most local authorities had tiny numbers of cases. Before we stopped we were only doing 1,500 tests per day. This should not have happened.
‘And contact tracing could have easily continued with local authority public health teams, GPs, environmental health officers and trained volunteers. Except maybe in London and W Midlands. This would have reduced spread.’
Sir David King, a chemist at the University of Cambridge, agreed that testing could have spared the UK some of the devastation it has gone through.
Asked whether he thought testing could have cut the death toll he told the BBC: ‘I don’t think there’s any might about it, of course it would.’
In his evidence yesterday, Sir Patrick added: ‘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 Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, has explained that the UK stopped its policy of testing everyone so officials could focus on preparing the NHS.
When officials realised Britain was on the cusp of a full-blown epidemic the Government scrambled to try and prepare the already-crumbling NHS for patients.
Videos and reports emerging from Italy, which battled what is still perceived as the worst outbreak in the world, showed patients in corridors and hospitals overwhelmed with the sick and dying.
Afraid Britain faced the same fate, the Government rushed to cancel all non-urgent operations, empty hospital wards and buy as many ventilators as it could get its hands on.
In the process, testing, tracking and tracing of people infected with the virus in the community fell by the wayside.
Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said on March 12: ‘It is no longer necessary for us to identify every case’.
Throughout March, the Government never tested more than 9,000 people in a day, and the number hovered below 15,000 until mid-April.
During that time, hundreds of thousands of people – potentially millions – are believed to have been infected with the coronavirus and almost 18,000 people had died by the first time the Government managed to test 15,000 in a day.
The World Health Organization, shortly after Professor Whitty’s announcement, had urged countries to ‘test, test, test’.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, its director-general, said not doing so would be like ‘trying to fight a fire blindfolded’.