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The UK is now “too late” to recover time lost by failing to roll out mass testing of NHS staff for coronavirus, a former cabinet minister has said.
Greg Clark, who chairs the Commons science committee, questioned why the government did not adopt a “Dunkirk” strategy of using as many labs as possible to roll out mass testing from the start of the crisis.
That could have allowed NHS workers who are currently self isolating as the UK death toll from the pandemic soars to be working on the frontline if they do not have the virus, he told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast.
But Clark stressed that it was not too late to ramp up testing and that it was now a matter of urgency.
He has written to Public Health England (PHE) to question why it pursued a centralised strategy of using one big lab in Collindale before progressively spreading testing out across the country, instead of simultaneously involving universities and research institutes.
“Sir Paul Nurse who runs the Crick Institute has talked about the little boats, the Dunkirk analogy.
“I don’t know why that wasn’t pursued from the outset given that it was being pursued in other countries, famously in South Korea.”
He called on PHE to publish the research which informed its decision, making clear that it had failed to meet chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s demand for greater testing capacity.
“We haven’t got that and I think that is an important lesson to be learned - to make sure that at the later stages of the crisis that we get ahead as far as possible of things that we’ll need, whether it’s access to physical goods, whether it’s the organisation of people, that we anticipate future phases.
“It’s obviously too late, there’s a big scramble to get testing capacity up now and we need to resolve that, that’s very urgent.
“But we also need to learn the lesson and make sure that we are ahead of where we need to be in other areas.”
The Tunbridge Wells MP also questioned what had happened to the millions of antibody tests ordered by the government which will allow people to know if they have had the virus and have built up some immunity.
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at PHE, told Clark’s committee last week in an “astonishing announcement” that 3.5m tests had been bought and could be available for use as early as this week.
“We are eight days from when she made that statement so we need to know what’s happened to that programme because it’s very important,” Clark said.
The former business secretary also said he was worried that the economic hit from coronavirus could push a heavily-indebted country into even more problems.
It came as the number of people applying for the universal credit welfare payment surged to 950,000 in the two weeks since Boris Johnson put the UK in lockdown.
“One of the things I have worried about and I think a lot of people have worried about in recent years is the degree of personal debt we have in this country, that is not at all an ideal way to go into a crisis in which people are going to have to take on more debt,” he said.
“I think that is one of the many lessons we will have to address coming out of this as to how we can be more active in recognising the fragility that comes from a situation in which people have high levels of personal debt and to find a way to change that situation for the future.”