Dropping community screening for coronavirus was 'the best thing to do with the tests that we had', Government adviser says

Screening for coronavirus in the community was dropped because the UK did not have the capacity to test both in and out of hospital, a senior Government adviser has revealed.

Tuesday, 19th May 2020, 7:02 pm

Professor Dame Angela McLean, deputy chief scientific adviser, said today the country prioritised the testing of hospital patients earlier in the Covid-19 outbreak when testing capacity was limited.

Asked why community testing ended on March 12, when the World Health Organisation had encouraged as much testing as possible, Dame Angela said: “The advice that we gave certainly took account of what testing was available.”

Speaking at the Downing Street daily briefing she said: “It was the best thing to do with the tests that we had. We could not have people in hospital with Covid symptoms not knowing whether or not they had Covid.”

Dame Professor Angela McLean. Photo: PA
Dame Professor Angela McLean. Photo: PA

Asked if the advice was based on the capacity at the time, Dame Angela said: “I think that’s what I just said, yes.”

And later she added "the science advice would be you need to have a rapid and reliable testing system".

It came after the Commons Science and Technology Committee, in a letter to the Prime Minister, said Public Health England (PHE) had repeatedly failed to answer questions over the “pivotal” decision.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “At the beginning of this where there an issue of capacity on tests then, of course, we needed to prioritise where those tests were most needed and that was in our NHS.”

Dame Angela also acknowledged that claims of a lack of transparency over the advice given to ministers would be a “big issue” in a future inquiry into the handling of the crisis.

The Commons Science and Technology Committee said further transparency is needed over the provision of scientific advice, providing clear distinction between scientific advice and policy decisions.

Dame Angela told the Downing Street briefing: “We have been very focused on trying to give really high quality advice, completely rooted in evidence.”

She said she “hadn’t spent much time worrying about how secretive or not secretive it is”.

“I can see that is going to be a big issue when we have a big look back.

“I would be more inclined to address that then.”

Earlier in the day Downing Street had signalled ministers should shoulder responsibility for controversial decisions made during the coronavirus pandemic after Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey sought to blame scientists.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said “ministers ultimately decide” what to do with scientific advice, but Ms Coffey deflected criticism on to the scientists advising the Government’s response.

She told Sky News: “I’ve said that we’re getting advice from the scientists, it is for ministers to decide on policy but we’ve tried to take every step of the way making sure that we listen to the science, understand the science and make decisions based on that.

“If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people then think we made a wrong decision.”

Asked if he regretted that the Government stopped tracing in the community in March, Mr Eustice did not answer the question and instead said that testing and tracing capacity is being “ramped up”.

He said: “The point that I would make on the testing and tracing is we’ve been expanding, ramping up that testing capacity over the last couple of months.

“We got it to 100,000 capacity by the end of April, we’re continuing to build that. This week, Matt Hancock has made clear that anybody over the age of five with symptoms can get a test.”

He added: “I think it’s the case that early on in this epidemic, clearly there was a priority to make sure that people showing symptoms who worked in the NHS because of their close proximity with patients had those tests so there was priority given to those.

“But we are now in the position where we’re able to offer testing to anybody over the age of five with symptoms and that’s going to be quite crucial to developing our track and trace capabilities in the months ahead.”

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