Minister admits UK abandoned Covid-19 contact tracing due to lack of testing capacity

A higher capacity for testing at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak could have meant continuing widespread checks in the community, a minister has conceded.

Security minister James Brokenshire said “capacity constraints” earlier in the coronavirus crisis meant contact tracing among the public was abandoned in March.

England’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance told MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee on Tuesday that it would have been “beneficial” if testing capacity had been ramped up more quickly.

Security Minister James Brokenshire (Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)
James Brokenshire said extra testing capacity earlier in the crisis would have been beneficial (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

At the same committee, England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries admitted that had there been unlimited capacity, a “slightly different approach” could have been taken.

When asked why widespread community testing was halted, Brokenshire told BBC’s Today programme on Wednesday: “We’ve always been informed by the expert advice around this.

Read on...

“There was a shift in terms of how testing was done – we’ve already heard on some of the issues of overall capacity at that point in time and some of the evidence that Patrick Vallance, our chief scientific officer, has given.”

Asked whether, had there been the capacity, track-and-tracing should have continued, the Home Office minister said: “Would there have been benefit in having that extra capacity, as Patrick Vallance highlighted yesterday? Yes.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics, based on Department of Health & Social Care figures)

“The challenge that we had is that we have some fantastic laboratories, some fantastic expertise, but it has been the capacity constraints that we have had, and therefore how that posed challenges.”

He added that testing has now been “ramped up” – going from 2,000 per day in February to “120,000 at the end of April”.

Asked about the falling numbers of tests undertaken since then, with the government failing to hit its 100,000 daily target for the third day in a row on Monday, Brokenshire said capacity is there but demand will vary.

He told BBC Breakfast: “I think on that the point is that the capacity is there to meet need, that is the important thing. And whether you look at an individual day, we have scaled that up and so that testing is there if it is needed.”

Ministers abandoned widespread testing and contact tracing on 12 March as the virus spread beyond control in the community.

On Tuesday, Vallance told MPs a greater ability to carry out testing would have improved the UK’s response to the pandemic.

He told the committee: “I think that probably we, in the early phases, and I’ve said this before, I think if we’d managed to ramp up testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial.”

Sir Patrick Vallance giving evidence to the Health and Social Care Select Committee on Tuesday (PA Wire/PA Images)
Sir Patrick Vallance giving evidence to the Health and Social Care Select Committee on Tuesday (PA)

Meanwhile, Dr Harries said limited resources meant a balance had to be struck at the time.

But she added that “if we had unlimited capacity, and the ongoing support beyond that, then we perhaps would choose a slightly different approach”.

On this point, Brokenshire told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday that while the UK has “world-leading laboratories, overall capacity and scale is something that we did not have”.

He added: “Clearly there will be plenty of time for searching questions once we are through this, and how we ensure that we are as best prepared as we can be, learning and applying lessons from this experience.

“But at the same time we must be rigorously focused on the here and now, looking at these next steps and ensuring that we do that carefully, appropriately, to get through this virus.”

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us