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Leading Government scientist admits Covid-19 testing policy was ditched because of lack of capacity

Dame Angela McLean admitted the decision was influenced by a lack of tests (PA)

3 min read

The UK’s deputy chief scientific adviser has acknowledged that the Government’s decision to abandon its initial coronavirus test and trace policy was influenced by a lack of available tests.

Ministers have repeatedly defended the decision to change tack as the coronavirus pandemic took hold as being the right thing to do, despite it since being reversed.

Speaking at the Downing Street press briefing, Environment Secretary George Eustice was asked if he regretted stopping community tracing in March.

The Cabinet minister said testing and tracking capacity was now being "ramped up”.

"We got it to 100,000 capacity by the end of April, we're continuing to build that,” he said.

“This week, Matt Hancock has made clear that anybody over the age of five with symptoms can get a test."

But standing next to him, Professor Dame Angela McLean, the deputy chief scientific adviser, said the change had been due to a shortage of tests and the need to prioritise NHS staff and hospital patients.

"The advice that we gave certainly took account of what testing was available,” she explained.

"It was the best thing to do with the tests that we had. We could not have people in hospital with Covid symptoms not knowing whether or not they had Covid."

Asked if the advice given was therefore based on the capacity at the time, Dame Angela said: "I think that's what I just said, yes."

The comments from the leading adviser came as the Science and Technology Committee said Britain’s “inadequate” testing capacity was “not increased early enough or boldly enough” to stop the coronavirus spreading rapidly through Britain’s care homes.

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

And they said that the Government had yet to explain why it took the “pivotal decision” to opt for a “centralised, smaller scale approach to testing” in the early days of the pandemic over mass testing programmes run by countries like South Korea.

Prof McLean made the comments after praising South Korea and Germany for having created large testing capacity.

Asked what lessons the UK had learnt from overseas, she said: "It's a very good point that we need to look to our near neighbours and also countries further away to learn what works and how long it takes to see if something is working or not working."

"The two I would draw particular lessons from would be South Korea, where I feel they've made inspiring use of all kinds of different contact tracing in order to control infection to an extent that they are now down to a handful of new cases every day.

"And when they say new cases they mean people they have found in the community because of their contact tracing efforts.

"I think that is an experience that we are aiming to emulate.

"The other country I would look to is Germany, where the importance of testing has always been so clear and that is a place from where we have learned that we need to grow our testing facility, and have grown our testing facility.”

And the deputy chief scientific adviser also acknowledged concerns over a lack of transparency in the advice given to ministers, saying that would be "a big issue when we have a big look back” at any inquiry into the pandemic response.

But she stressed that she had not personally "spent much time worrying about how secretive or not secretive" the advice is.

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