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Revealed: Test and trace was abandoned because system 'could only cope with five coronavirus cases a week'

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 30/05/2020 Laura Donnelly, Tom Morgan
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Britain’s disastrous decision to abandon testing for coronavirus occurred because health systems could only cope with five cases a week, official documents show.

Newly-released papers from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies shows routine testing and tracing of contacts was stopped because Public Health England’s systems were struggling to deal with a handful of cases.

At a meeting on Feb 18, advisors said PHE could only cope with testing and tracing contacts of five Covid-19 cases a week, with modelling suggesting it might only be possible to increase this to 50 cases.

Advisors then agreed it was "sensible" to shift to stopping routine testing - despite acknowledging that such a decision would “generate a public reaction”.

a person sitting on a bed: It was feared that routine testing would overwhelm testing facilities - PA © PA It was feared that routine testing would overwhelm testing facilities - PA

The decision to give up on testing those with symptoms of coronavirus is now seen as the key reason the UK has the highest death rate in Europe.

Over the next month the Government will roll out a national contact tracing scheme 14 weeks after officials raised the country's poor readiness for such a scheme.

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More on coronavirus:

Download the Microsoft News app for full coverage of the crisis

Lockdown laws: What has changed? (Press Association)

How to stay safe working, travelling and shopping (Sky News)

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England is now recording around 8,000 new cases of Covid-19 a day and the NHS "test and trace" system is promising to warn up to 10,000 people a day that they have been near someone who has tested positive.

The end of routine testing in the UK came on March 12, when Boris Johnson announced that anyone with symptoms of coronavirus should simply stay home for a week. On this day the UK recorded 421 new cases.

Gallery: Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak around the world (Photo Services)

However, after the virus raged uncontrolled through the UK that month, ministers were forced back to nationwide testing, announcing a "five pillar" plan on April 2, which finally led to a nationwide tracing service launched this week.

A desperate initial shortage of capacity to test and trace is detailed among 51 papers released on Friday, including minutes of 34 meetings, which occurred from 22 January to May 7. They reveal the crucial decisions which led to the disastrous decision to abandon routine testing - which is only now being ramped back up.

Minutes of a key Sage meeting on Feb 18 state: “Currently PHE can cope with five new cases a week (requiring isolation of 800 contacts). Modelling suggests this capacity could be increased to 50 new cases a week (8,000 contact isolations) but this assumption needs to be stress tested with PHE operational colleagues.”

Sage concluded: “When there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful.”

Matthew Hancock wearing a suit and tie: Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, launches NHS track and trace - Reuters © Provided by The Telegraph Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, launches NHS track and trace - Reuters

Two days later, Sage’s scientists agreed that plans drawn up for PHE on discontinuing contact tracing are “sensible,” the minutes show.  

“Any decision to discontinue contact tracing will generate a public reaction – which requires consideration with input from behavioural scientists,” the minutes of February 20 note.

The chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, suggested the nation would abandon routine testing on March 5, in part because there was now a "slim to zero" chance of avoiding a global pandemic.  

Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, later claimed abandoning testing was a policy choice because “there comes a point in a pandemic where that is not an appropriate intervention”. The Government's consistent position at the time was that they were following scientific advice.

a person is walking down the street: Test and trace is key to the Government's strategy for lifting the lockdown - BLOOMBERG © Provided by The Telegraph Test and trace is key to the Government's strategy for lifting the lockdown - BLOOMBERG

However, the World Health Organisation said countries were not doing enough to test and isolate cases. At the same time, its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urging countries to “test, test, test.” As the pandemic took hold across the world, Germany was carrying out 50,000 tests a day at a point when Britain could only manage 5,000.

The UK now has seen more than 38,000 deaths - more than four times as many deaths than Germany. Former health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said the decision to abandon testing and tracing will rank as one of the “biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes”.

Earlier this month Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific advisor, singled out the failure to ramp up testing as one of the key errors in Britain’s handling of the crisis.

"I think if we'd managed to ramp up testing capacity quicker, it would have been beneficial" he said. "And, you know, for all sorts of reasons that didn't happen,” he told MPs.

The Government has since come under fire for a litany of testing failures, and criticism for repeatedly missed targets to carry out 100,000 tests a day.

Sage minutes also suggest the new tracing strategy - which only tracks contacts after a case is confirmed positive- may not be sufficient. A meeting on May 1 says that in the initial stage of the programme contacts should be asked to isolate as soon as they are linked to a suspected case, rather than delaying until it is confirmed.

Last night, Public Health England said it was certain it had capacity to track and trace more than five cases at the time of the minutes from the Sage meeting.

However, a spokeswoman was unable to clarify whether Public Health England would have been able cope with 50 cases outlined in the Sage modelling.

(left to right) Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by PA Video/PA Images via Getty Images) © PA Wire/PA Images (left to right) Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by PA Video/PA Images via Getty Images)

"The model used an assumption of five importation events per week in the initial phase," a spokeswoman for PHE said. "This means five imported cases and subsequent cases that may arise as a consequence of those imported cases; the modelling considered the associated contacts for both. Modelling stated that the number of contacts could be managed by PHE." 

A Government spokesman said: "We have successfully launched NHS Test and Trace, to help us keep this virus under control and save lives, while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally.

“Local councils have plans in place to respond to Covid-19. To support the rollout of NHS Test and Trace, we asked all councils to extend their existing plans into dedicated Local Outbreak Plans by the end of June. Last week we gave all councils £300 million new, dedicated funding to support councils to do all they can to make Test and Trace a success.

"We now have the 25,000 tracers we need to help control the virus, and hope the public will do their bit to keep the infection rate down"

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Stay at home as much as possible to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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