Pressure Builds on Boris Johnson Over the U.K.’s Lag in Virus Testing

Stuart Biggs

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson’s top medical adviser said the U.K. must learn from other countries’ experience of coronavirus testing as he warned the National Health Service may be overwhelmed by the pandemic.

The admission came after days of criticism from politicians and the media that Britain’s test regime is lagging behind other nations’, including Germany and South Korea. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the U.K. is being hobbled by global supply chain bottlenecks, and he dampened optimism that home test kits could be available within days.

“What we need to do is look at those countries that have actually got more testing than us and work out how to do it the way they’re doing it as best we can in our own system, using our own testing systems,” Whitty said at a joint press conference with Johnson on Wednesday.

The issue carries significant political risk for Prime Minister Johnson because testing is seen by medical experts, the World Health Organization and even his own advisers as crucial in the absence of a vaccine. Without knowing how many people have been infected it’s impossible to know how best to tackle the outbreak -- or to judge when to end an economy-sapping lockdown.

The admission that the U.K. needs to learn from other countries is also potentially damaging for the government, which has faced repeated criticism for acting more slowly than other countries to curb movement of people, close schools, and ban gatherings in public.

‘Extraordinary Speed’

Standing next to Johnson and Whitty at a press conference in London, the U.K.’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance acknowledged the government has no idea how widely the virus has spread in the population.

“The scale of this is something which has obviously occurred at extraordinary speed,” Whitty said, when asked why the U.K. was not able to match other countries’ rate of testing. “That’s just a practical reality.”

The lack of testing capacity is having an immediate impact on the state-run NHS’s capacity to cope, because many front-line workers showing symptoms -- or in households with other people who are -- are self-isolating to avoid the risk of infecting their patients. But not all of these medical workers would have to stay at home if they could be tested and given the all-clear.

The U.K. had conducted just over 90,000 tests as of March 24, typically at a rate of 5,000-6,000 day. That’s still well short of the immediate goal of 10,000 daily tests and far from the 25,000 target it wants to hit in the coming weeks.

U.K. Says 3.5 Million Coronavirus Home Tests Coming Soon

Close Run

“This is going to be a close-run thing, we all know that,” Whitty said, when asked if the NHS will be overwhelmed in the next three weeks. If people adhere to the lock down rules, the outbreak will “probably be manageable, but we can’t guarantee that,” he said.

Johnson decided to stop widespread testing, instead choosing to limit tests to patients who were taken to hospital showing likely symptoms.

That policy was driven by the pursuit of so-called herd immunity -- the point at which enough people have had an illness, and gained protection from it, that it won’t be transmitted to those who haven’t been infected. Vallance said at the time that 60% of the U.K. population would need to catch the disease for it to work.

The government abandoned that strategy when scientific modeling made clear the NHS didn’t have enough critical care beds to cope with the expected numbers needing treatment.

It is now in a phase of trying to suppress the outbreak with intensifying measures aimed at reducing social interactions. On Monday, Johnson said the country would be in a lock down for at least three weeks.

The strategy had many critics including Jeremy Hunt, the U.K.’s longest-serving health secretary from 2012 to 2018, who told the BBC on Wednesday the decision to stop testing in the community was “very worrying.”

“When the view was that you were happy for 60% of the population to get this, then testing becomes less important,” he said. “The key -- if we want to avoid long periods of lock down -- is to have very, very comprehensive testing so that we actually track down and break the chain of transmission.”

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