The UK’s testing regime is under the microscope after ministers appeared too slow to act while today the UK still has no fully functioning trace and trace app despite already easing the lockdown.
March 12 is viewed as the lowest point of the crisis when the Government dropped community testing despite experts around the world warning that testing every case was the only way to cut infections and save lives.
The Government has been damned by MPs for still not explaining who took the decision – or exactly why – although a lack of capacity and a lack of control over the virus’ spread are the likeliest answers.
This is how the testing scandal has unfolded:
- January 31: First confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK are two Chinese nationals staying in York while sightseeing. The Department of Health pledges to test anyone who becomes ill with the virus.
- February 1: China reports asymptomatic cases of coronavirus, making the testing of health workers crucial because they could be spreading the virus unknowingly. An outbreak of COVID-19 had already swamped the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan. A British man on board would later die.
- February 21: As the virus continues to spread across the globe, the UK Government experts conclude at a meeting that the disease is still only a ‘moderate’ threat to the UK. Yet in Lombardy, Italy, clusters of cases began to emerge before the north of the country was engulfed completely.
- March 3: South Korea manages to reduce the number of Covid-19 infections to 851 on March 3 by effectively tracking people infected with COVID-19 using an app and testing. By the end of March there would be less than 20 cases per day.
Doctors urge other countries to adopt their model.
- March 11: Health Secretary Matt Hancock says he is ‘rolling out a big expansion of testing’ but fails to give a timetable and says 1,215 people have been tested for coronavirus in the UK.
- March 12: 24 hours later Boris Johnson was accused of mixed messages after saying that health workers will no longer test people for the virus in their homes, only when they are admitted to hospital.
Anyone with symptoms, but able to care for themselves at home, would not be tested and it marked the end of the policy to ‘contact trace’ everyone with symptoms on, as the government’s response moves from ‘containment’ into a ‘delay’ phase.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said: ‘It is no longer needed to identify every case, so we will pivot testing capacity to identify people in hospitals with symptoms to ensure they don’t pass it on.’
Critics have said that this is the day the Government lost control and conceded defeat on testing as cases increased and they didn’t have the capacity to test every person.
Downing Street has always refused to say who took the fateful decision to halt testing in the community on March 12, with many claiming it was this decision that led to it sweeping through communities and care homes.
- March 13: Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance suggests the strategy is not to ‘suppress’ coronavirus completely but ‘reduce the peak’ as up to 60 per cent get infected. He says that means the UK will ‘build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease’.
- March 16: Boris Johnson urges Britons to follow ‘social distancing’ guidelines as well as isolating when they have symptoms, in a change of policy after modelling found the death toll could be much higher than previously estimated.
The WHO warns on slow progress with testing, saying you ‘cannot fight a fire blindfolded’ and urges countries to ‘test, test, test’.
- March 17: There was more confusion as Patrick Vallance tells a Commons committee testing numbers should be higher. ‘I think we need a big increase in testing, and that is what I am pushing for very hard.’
- March 18: Amid growing criticism, the PM declares that there will be a big expansion of tests from under 5,000 a day to 25,000. He also sets an ambition of 250,000 tests a day, although this includes potential mass antibody tests for whether people previously had the disease.
- March 21: Downing Street sends an email to research institutions begging for machines needed to process testing samples. No10 denies this was the first time it had raised the idea.
- March 27: Mr Johnson and Matt Hancock announce they have tested positive for coronavirus. Prof Whitty goes into self-isolation with symptoms.
- March 29: Cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Michael Gove hail news that the UK is now carrying out 10,000 tests a day.
- April 1: It emerges that the UK has still not carried out 10,000 tests in a day, despite apparently having the capacity to do so.
In Germany a single lab in Cologne was carrying out 10,000 tests itself. Germany would soon ramp up to 500,000 tests a week.
- April 2: Matt Hancock sets a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. At the same time a goal of 25,000 tests a day by the middle of April is quietly dropped.
- April 5: The PM’s official account causes confusion by tweeting that the target is for 100,000 people to be tested a day, rather than 100,000 tests as other ministers have suggested. Many people need more than one test in a day for clinical reasons, such as to confirm results.
- April 6: Mr Johnson is admitted to hospital as his symptoms fail to subside and would later spend days in intensive care.
- April 30: Mr Hancock declares victory with 122,000 tests in a day. However, it emerges that the government has been counting tests posted out but not actually completed.
That is despite Mr Johnson and others stating the numbers are for tests ‘carried out’.
The numbers tumble below the target again in the following days, although the government insists capacity remains in place.
- May 5: Trials of an NHSX app to track who has been in proximity to infected people begin on the Isle of Wight. Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance admits ramping up testing earlier would have been ‘beneficial’.
- May 18: It emerges the app will not be ready for national use by ‘mid-May’ as planned, although Downing Street insists track and trace can start without it.
Mr Hancock announces that everyone over the age of five displaying coronavirus symptoms can now apply for a test, although key workers and patients will be prioritised.
- May 19: A furious blame game erupted over who was to blame for coronavirus blunders on testing and care homes were down to ‘wrong’ science advice.
The Science and Technology Committee found hospital staff, care home workers and residents were put at risk because of a lack of capacity for screening ‘when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant’.
The Department of Health and Public Health England have been pointing the finger at each other.