Boris Johnson’s government is under growing pressure to explain why so few British people are being tested for the coronavirus.
The UK is currently testing less than 10,000 a day, compared to 500,000 a week in Germany.
Multiple reports suggest the slow rate of testing is due to the government’s initial “herd immunity” strategy which allowed for widespread infection across the UK, in order to build up immunity within the population.
UK advisers believed the threat of the virus was manageable and would not overwhelm the National Health Service.
On Wednesday the Times of London newspaper reported that UK scientists deemed the virus a “moderate risk” to the UK as recently as five weeks ago.
The UK government abandoned the herd immunity strategy last month and have now imposed a national lockdown.
Boris Johnson’s government is under growing pressure to explain why it has failed to mirror other European countries in implementing widespread coronavirus testing, as reports suggest that it was operating until recent weeks under the false belief that the COVID-19 virus would only be a “moderate” risk to the UK.
The World Health Organisation has advised all governments to implement mass testing regimes, in order to repeat the success of those countries, such as South Korea, who have used testing to “flatten the curve” of the virus’ spread.
However, the latest figures show that while Germany is currently testing around 500,000 people a week, the UK is testing less than 10,000 people a day. 8,630 were tested on Monday, March 30.
The discrepancy comes as the Times of London newspaper reported on Wednesday that as recently as five weeks ago, the UK government’s scientific advisers believed that the coronavirus was only a “moderate” risk to the UK.
So why has the UK fallen so far behind other developed nations?
The UK pursued a ‘herd immunity’ strategy until it was too late
Both the Times of London newspaper and Buzzfeed News have reported that the slow response was due to a belief within the UK government that the coronavirus could be mitigated in the UK, rather than suppressed, through a so-called “herd immunity” strategy.
Official minutes reveal that at a meeting on Friday, February 21, when restrictions were being imposed on towns in badly-affected northern Italy, a UK government advisory committee of scientists found “no objections” to keeping the risk level to the country at “moderate.”
Records from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group show that the committee judged that there was no need to change Public Health England’s risk assessment of the disease’s impact on the UK as moderate.
The UK has since gone into national lockdown, with several senior members of the UK government, including the prime minister himself, in quarantine after contracting COVID-19.
On Tuesday President Trump described the UK’s initial “herd immunity” strategy as “catastrophic.”
“If you remember, they were looking at that concept – I guess it’s a concept if you don’t mind death, a lot of death – but they were looking at that in the UK, remember,” the President said at a White House press briefing.
“All of sudden they went hard the other way because they started seeing things that weren’t good. They put themselves in a little bit of a problem.”
He added: “They have a name for it, but we won’t even go by the name – it would have been very catastrophic I think if that would have happened.”
The UK was too slow to spot the need for tests
As a result of their initial strategy, the UK only started to ramp up testing when it was too late to secure the supplies it needed.
“Everyone in the world wants those same reagents and the suppliers can only supply a certain amount,” Alex Blakemore, head of life sciences at Brunel University London told the Times.
“We are now in competition with the rest of the world . . . and other people have already bought up a lot of stock.”
Despite the shortage, the UK government only acted late to attempt to find alternative supplies.
As the Politico Playbook email reported last month, Downing Street only sent out emergency requests to research institutions for testing equipment on March 22, some two months after the first confirmed coronavirus case in the UK.
The UK government’s failure has led to heavy criticism from normally supportive quarters.
The Daily Mail, a right-leaning newspaper that is supportive of Johnson’s Conservative party, on Wednesday morning dubbing the shortfall an “unforgivable shambles.”
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Johnson on Wednesday morning said that the UK’s testing capacity was 12,750 — well short of Johnson’s target of 25,000. Even if the UK does hit the prime minister’s target in the next few weeks, it’ll still be testing less than half of the number Germany is currently testing per week: 500,000.
The UK government claims that the gulf between the UK and Germany is largely due to the fact that the latter has a much stronger manufacturing base, meaning it is able to produce its own testing equipment rapidly.
“Germany has the entire biotech diagnostic sector in its borders. So when people say why can’t we do what Germany is doing, the answer is 70 years of industrial policy,” one UK government source told The Times.
It is true that virtually every country in the western world is trying to secure millions of kits. However, the UK government’s decision to alter its strategy weeks after the coronavirus’ arrival in Britain meant it was a late entrant to the race.
‘Are these people in their right mind?’
A leading South Korea official last week described the UK’s initial herd immunity strategy as “nonsense.”
“We in Korea were thinking, ‘Are these people in their right mind?'” Doctor Min Pok-kee told Wired.
South Korea’s policy of mass-testing is lauded as the coronavirus model which other countries should follow.
Since the virus hit the country in mid-February, its government has focused on testing lots of people, even introducing drive-thru testing stations, helping it “flatten the curve” and avoid an acceleration in cases as seen in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere.
By contrast, the UK government’s plan is to first provide testing for NHS staff, in order to make sure whoever is fit to treat coronavirus patients is able to, before only then rolling out it out to the general public.
Chris Hopson of NHS Providers said on Tuesday’s edition of BBC Newsnight that tests conducted over the weekend showed that a small percentage of health workers in isolation had actually caught the coronavirus, meaning potentially thousands of NHS staff who are able to work are currently at home.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is self-isolating after catching the coronavirus, is trying to get on top of this by urging hospitals to use all spare testing capacity they have on testing their staff.
However, the UK government expects the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the UK to continue to grow over the next fortnight.
If the number of tests carried out doesn’t also significantly rise, Johnson’s government will come under immense pressure to explain exactly why not.
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