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NHS didn’t test more staff for Covid-19 out of fear they would go off sick, top scientists claim

The NHS avoided testing its staff for coronavirus en masse because it was afraid they would have to go off sick and leave hospitals without workers, scientists claim.

In damning meetings with politicians, some of the country’s leading scientists this morning slammed Britain’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and said a refusal to prepare had led to a ‘major catastrophe’.

Officials and members Government have for years ignored the threat of a global disease outbreak, experts said, despite it being ‘obvious’ that this would happen.  

Now with almost 300,000 confirmed cases and over 45,000 deaths from Covid-19, Britain is one of the world’s worst hit countries despite being one of the wealthiest.

The UK has been too slow to set up testing capacity and made the ‘mistake’ of stopping contact tracing for most of the epidemic. It has suffered badly because it didn’t make efforts to set up the systems before the pandemic began, scientists say. 

The director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Professor Peter Piot, said: ‘You don’t set up the fire brigade when the house is on fire’. 

Meetings with committees in the House of Commons and the House of Lords this morning saw top scientists reveal:

  • UK has one of the worst Covid-19 death tolls among health and care workers, with 540 recorded, reportedly second only to Russia;
  • China was ‘not forthcoming’ at the start of the coronavirus outbreak because it was afraid it would be blamed for the disease rather than helped;
  • Abandoning the UK’s test and trace programme in March was a ‘mistake’;
  • One of the UK’s biggest failures was not preparing for this pandemic in recent years and getting on the ‘front foot’ – it was ‘obvious’ it would happen one day;   
  • Up to 45 per cent of healthcare workers in Britain were infected with coronavirus at the beak of the epidemic;
  • The UK simply viewed the coronavirus as unstoppable so didn’t put enough effort into stopping it, despite South Korea successfully containing the virus;  
  • Humanity will be living with Covid-19 ‘for decades to come’ and acting as though it could go away by winter is a false hope. 

Professor Devi Sridhar, University of Edinburgh

Professor Sir John Bell, a medicine expert at the University of Oxford, told the House of Commons’s Health and Social Care Committee that hospitals were afraid of having to send staff home if they tested positive for Covid-19.

He said: ‘As time went on, there still wasn’t a real push to do healthcare workers and indeed, all patients in the hospital. And it sort of went on, and on, and on. 

‘And indeed there was a suspicion, which I think is probably correct, that NHS institutions and the NHS were avoiding testing their hospital workers because they were afraid they would find [high levels of infection] and they would have to send everyone home, and as a result not have a workforce.

‘That in my view is not an ethical approach to the problem. You can’t not test people because you’re worried about a human resources issue.

‘But I think that was a pretty central issue in that failure to test hospitals.’ 

Testing, and the lack of it at the start of Britain’s epidemic, has been a sticking point for dozens of critics that have blasted the UK’s response to Covid-19.

But it is only one aspect of the problem, experts suggest, and a deeper issue was the country’s decisions not to prepare for what was ‘obviously’ going to happen. 

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, told members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee: ‘The main problem is that we have not taken pandemics seriously in this country.’ 

‘We weren’t prepared and we should have been prepared… because it was obvious that this was eventually going to hit us,’ he added.

Sir Paul appeared alongside directors of some of the most prestigious institutions in the UK, including the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences. 

He explained: ‘Why didn’t we take it seriously? We had this trial a couple of years ago [Exercise Cygnus, a pandemic preparedness exercise in 2016], of influenza – it was shown that we weren’t prepared yet nothing was done. 

‘Maybe we suffered from austerity, maybe we suffered from a lack of leadership.

‘I don’t think it’s a question so much of viruses were ignored over bacteria I actually think everything was, to some extent, ignored.

‘We weren’t taking pandemics seriously when it was so clear that if we did suffer one then it would be a major catastrophe. And what do we have? A major catastrophe.’

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, added: ‘I think part of the reason for… complacency or lack of preparedness is that many of the earlier threats didn’t materialise to the same extent in the UK.

‘For example the H1N1, swine flu or Ebola – they were contained in other regions and didn’t spread to the West extensively. That may have induced in us a sense of perhaps a complacence or a lack of preparedness.’ 

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