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Boris Johnson says Britain ‘did not learn the lessons’ of 2002 Sars pandemic as he is grilled on coronavirus testing delay

The PM said the ‘brutal reality’ was that the UK had not ‘learned lessons’ from previous outbreaks (PA)

3 min read

Boris Johnson has said a failure to “learn the lessons” of the 2002 Sars pandemic is partly to blame for the UK’s slow switch to a mass testing programme for the coronavirus.

The Prime Minister told MPs on the Liaison Committee that a programme of widespread testing was not launched in the early days of the outbreak because the UK “did not have the capacity” and had not taken on board lessons from previous pandemics.

The Government has since succeeded in meeting a 100,000-tests-a-day target, which was launched by Health Secretary Matt Hancock in April.

Mr Johnson meanwhile used the same committee appearance to confirm that a long-awaited new tracing system aimed at mapping the spread of the virus would be launched from Thursday.

But Jeremy Hunt, Mr Hancock’s predecessor as Health Secretary, pressed the PM on why it had taken months from the first coronavirus diagnosis to the announcement of the 100,000-a-day aim.

Mr Johnson said Covid-19 was “a totally new virus” that “had some properties that everybody was quite slow to recognise across the world”.

But he acknowledged that the UK had abandoned an earlier test, track and trace programme due to stretched resources.

“Our testing operation as you know, began much earlier,” he said.

“We did have a test, track and trace operation. 

“But unfortunately, we did not have the capacity in PHE, in Public Health England, to be absolutely blunt, we didn’t have the enzymes, we didn’t have the test kits, we just didn’t have the volume. 

“Nor did we have enough experienced trackers really to mount the kind of operation that they did in some other eastern Asian countries, for instance.”

And he added: “I think the brutal reality, Jeremy, is that this country did not learn the lessons of Sars or Mers. And we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed. We now have that. 

“And as you’ll appreciate, during the peak of the epidemic, when numbers of cases were running very high indeed, test, track and trace would not have been appropriate.”

Sars, which stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, originated in China and saw a wave of cases across Asia in the early 2000s. 

Other countries including the UK and Canada saw small numbers of cases before the pandemic was brought under control in 2003. 

Meanwhile Mers - Middle East Respiratory Syndrome - emerged in 2012, with thousands of cases confirmed since then.


The questions over testing capacity come after MPs on the separate Science and Technology Committee said the UK’s testing regime was “not increased early enough or boldly enough” to stop the coronavirus spreading rapidly through Britain’s care homes.

A letter to Mr Johnson from the committee’s chairman said “lack of capacity” in Britain’s testing regime had marked “one of the most significant problems of the handling of the pandemic to date”.

But Mr Johnson said "a huge effort was made to try to protect care homes".

He told the Liaison Commitee: "Every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians. 

“In no case was this done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims and actually, the number of discharges from the NHS into care homes went down by 40% from January to March. 

“So it’s just not true that there was some concerted effort to move people out of NHS beds into care homes. That’s just not right.”

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