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Coronavirus: UK’s testing chief says track and trace was ditched in March due to forecast of one million cases

The UK’s testing chief Professor John Newton spoke to the Science and Technology select committee (Parliamentlive.TV)

2 min read

The Government was forced to abandon its contact tracing system after experts forecasted it would face a million cases of coronavirus, according to the UK’s testing chief.

Professor John Newton said with those levels of infection it would have not have been possible to replicate the South Korean model of mass testing, tracking and tracing.

He told the Science and Technology select committee on Friday that this was why the policy was abandoned in early March and a countrywide lockdown implemented instead.

Prof Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England (PHE), said: "The epidemiology was crucial, we had an increase in the number of cases in March.

"The advice from modellers was that within a short period we would expect to be having a million cases in the UK and of course if you have a million cases there's no way, however much contact tracing or testing capacity you have, that you can pursue the South Korea model.

"At that point, the Government made the decision to move to lockdown as the most appropriate response to the epidemiology in the UK at the time.”

He said there had been a discussion at the Sage advisory group which agreed once community transmission of Covid-19 took hold in the UK it would "not be worthwhile" to continue contact tracing.

"When in March it became apparent that community transmission was occurring and we had multiple injections, introductions from different countries in the UK that decision was then enacted,” Prof Newton told MPs.

"It was a decision of course of Government, informed by all its advisers not just Public Health England."

This view was echoed by his colleague, PHE medical director Professor Yvonne Doyle, who also appeared in front of the committee via video-link.

She said they did not reject the South Korean model of mass testing, but it was stopped in March "because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK, which had been introduced by multiple introductions, particularly after half-term, and from European countries we now know had large amounts of prevalence themselves".

She added: "So we have multiple introductions, with many hundreds of thousands of people by March who had now been exposed to this virus in this country.

"Contact tracing could not possibly have had the capacity to address that.

"And with the capacity of lab testing and our contact tracers, we felt the most important thing to do was to focus on where there was national concern, which was the capacity of the NHS, to accrue that testing."

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