Coronavirus testing in UK not ramped up as quickly as it should have been, Sir Patrick Vallance admits

The chief scientific advisor to the government has admitted that coronavirus testing in the UK should have been ramped up more quickly.

Speaking on ITV's Coronavirus: Q&A broadcast on Monday night, Sir Patrick Vallance said at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, testing in the UK was "at the right level" and Public Health England (PHE) "got off to a good start" in terms trying to "make sure they caught people coming into the country with it [coronavirus]."

However, he went on to say that it was then "not scaled as fast as it needs to scale".

He added that testing in the UK has since been ramped up.

In the 24-hours to Sunday morning, 18,000 people in the UK were tested for coronavirus.

The government has set the ambitious target of testing 100,000 people per day by the end of the month.

Currently in the UK, the majority of those who are tested are patients who are suffering from respiratory illnesses and have been hospitalised.

Sir Patrick said that testing was "good in terms of what’s been able to be done in hospitals" but added more needed to be done to test healthcare professionals, something he described as "so important".

Speaking on Monday, a spokesperson for the prime minister said there had been “significant progress” in the attempt to improve testing of frontline NHS workers, with nearly 43,000 staff and their families tested so far.

On Sunday, 2,630 tests were carried out on NHS workers and their families.

The Downing Street spokesperson added that testing across the UK was "heading in the right direction".

South Korea and Germany both have huge testing programmes. Credit: UK government

However, the latest graphs show the UK's coronavirus trajectory is following a similar path to Italy, the second-worst hit country in the world in terms of Covid-19 deaths.

Italy has seen almost 20,000 fatalities, nearly double the 11,329 who have died in UK hospitals.

When asked on ITV's Coronavirus: Q&A why Germany had been able to test so many people and keep its death toll relatively low, Sir Patrick said there was "no question, in my view, testing is an incredibly important part of how we need to manage this going forward.

"It was something that we raised right at the beginning as something that needed to be in place, and we need to get more testing, and that’s happening at the moment."

However, he cautioned that a high volume of testing and a low death toll should not automatically be linked, adding that there "are all sorts of reasons" why Germany has seen relatively few deaths.

"I don’t think testing alone is the major reason for that," Sir Patrick said, adding things such as "concentration of people in cities, demographics, age, structures of populations" all played a part.

"So yes testing – there’s a lot that we’ve got to get right on that and that’s being looked at now by Public Health England and the Department of Health - and they are getting that right - but I don’t think it’s as simple to say lots of testing saves lives – that isn’t quite right I think," Sir Patrick added.

The government has always insisted that comparisons with other countries do not compare like-with-like, a point made by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab during the government's daily coronavirus update.

ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks said Sir Patrick's admission that testing could have been ramped up more quickly is important because "increasingly it is looking like one of the safest ways out of the lockdown is to have a big programme like Germany, like South Korea, to test large parts of the population, not just medical workers, and trace those they've been in contact with and isolate them, and weeks into this crisis we are very far from that."

Sir Patrick was also questioned why there appears to be a higher incidence of coronavirus amongst minority ethnic groups.

The 60-year-old said this was something authorities are "trying to understand" and that it was "particularly noticeable amongst some of the health care practitioners who we’ve seen who have unfortunately succumbed as a result of this".

Credit: ITV News
  • Coronavirus: Q&A is broadcast every Monday at 8pm on ITV - you can also watch it here.

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