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The coronavirus lockdown should not be eased unless the government puts in place a system to test, trace and isolate the infected, the deputy chief scientific adviser has said.
In an apparent break with the government’s position, Dame Angela McLean said easing restrictions and social distancing measures must be based on having a test and trace system in place, and on local infection levels.
It comes with teaching unions and councils at loggerheads with ministers over plans to reopen schools as early as June 1, and amid delays to the NHSX contact tracing app previously slated to play an important role in any test and trace system.
Downing Street has insisted that its plan has only been to reopen schools on June 1 “at the earliest”, that the government has recruited 21,000 contact tracers, and that the app is not crucial for any testing operation.
But asked whether it is too early to conclude, as ministers have, that the science says it is safe to return to schools on June 1, McLean told the Downing Street daily briefing: “Scientists have been very clear in our advice that changes to lockdown as we modelled them need a highly effective ‘track, trace and isolate’ system to be in place.
“And we’re also very clear that any change to the social distancing measures should be based upon observed levels of incidence in places that those are going to be changed, not on a fixed date.”
McLean revealed that government scientists would be getting a full update on Thursday of when the contact tracing system is going to be in place.
The deputy chief scientific adviser also expressed frustration when she was told of Portsmouth residents facing two-week waits for Covid-19 test results, only to be eventually told they were unclear.
McLean said it was “clearly” possible to have a 48-hour turnaround for test results.
“I think really having a rapid and reliable testing system is entirely an operational issue,” she said.
“So the science advice would be: you need to have a rapid and reliable testing system.”
Asked if the UK had such a system, she added: “I think it’s getting better.
“One of the things we have looked at a lot today is evidence from other countries and it clearly is possible to set up testing systems with a 48 hour turnaround.”
The deputy chief scientific adviser praised the testing and tracing models of countries like South Korea and Germany.
And she said the government’s scientists only advised ministers to scale back contact tracing to NHS patients on March 12 because capacity was not available for a wider programme. It was a decision that has provoked fierce criticism.
“The advice that we gave certainly took account of what testing was available,” McLean said.
“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 they had Covid.”