Failure to explain UK’s halt to mass Covid-19 testing in March ‘unacceptable’ | Politics

The failure to explain why the government took the significant and consequential decision to drop community testing at the start of the coronavirus outbreak is unacceptable, MPs have said in a damning letter to Boris Johnson.

The science and technology committee’s investigation into the early handling of the pandemic calls for Public Health England to explain the scientific reasoning behind abandoning mass testing to concentrate instead on testing limited numbers in its own laboratories.

The letter to the prime minister urges the government to learn from its experience.

It states: “The decision to pursue an approach of initially concentrating testing in a limited number of laboratories and to expand them gradually, rather than an approach of surging capacity through a large number of available public sector, research institute, university and private sector labs is one of the most consequential made during this crisis.

“From it followed the decision on 12 March to cease testing in the community and retreat to testing principally within hospitals.

“Amongst other consequences, it meant that residents in care homes – even those displaying Covid-19 symptoms – and care home workers could not be tested at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.

“The failure of PHE to publish the evidence on which its testing policy was based is unacceptable for a decision that may have had such significant consequences.”

On 18 May, Matt Hancock announced coronavirus testing is being extended in the UK to anyone over the age of five with symptoms.

Before then, eligibility had been limited to a series of groups including key workers, those aged over 65, people who could not work from home, or people who lived with someone from one of these groups.

Those with symptoms can now use the website to book home test kits or appointments at drive-through centres across the country.

The letter also criticises the government for a lack of transparency on the scientific advice it receives, and calls for a full list of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) participants to be updated regularly, including with the number of meetings they attended.

One investigation finding was that “the transparency around scientific advice has not always been as clear as it should have been”, and the length of time it has taken to publish scientific papers on the government’s website was highlighted.

All but two of the Sage members’ names have been published, and the committee suggested those who are not identified should instead disclose the disciplines that they work in, to give greater transparency around decision making.

The MPs also found that it has not been clear why a nationwide sampling study for the virus could not have been instigated by the government at a much earlier stage. They suggest that had this been in operation even a month earlier, many of the decisions to be made on social distancing could have been made earlier and with more detailed data.

The UK’s national statistician, Sir Ian Diamond, told the committee he had been asked to set a study up on 17 April – more than three weeks after the country went into lockdown.

The committee chair, Greg Clark, said the findings and recommendations were devised to be constructive.

The MP said: “Greater transparency around scientific advice; putting capacity in place in advance of need, such as in testing and vaccines; collecting more data earlier and learning from other countries’ approaches are some of the early lessons of this pandemic that are relevant to further decisions that will need to be taken during the weeks and months ahead.

“We hope the government will act on these recommendations which are offered in a constructive spirit based on the evidence we have taken so far.”

The letter to Johnson follows six public evidence sessions. The inquiry continues.

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