Fewer Would Have Died If UK Had Covid Testing Capacity Sooner, Minister Admits

But Grant Shapps says do not "look at the raw data and jump to conclusions" in early stages of Covid-19 crisis.

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Coronavirus would have killed fewer people if the UK had greater testing capacity sooner, minister Grant Shapps has admitted.

Speaking on Sunday, the transport secretary also said it was “too early” to compare Britain’s excess death rate to other countries’ as the Covid-19 crisis was still in its early stages.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Friday that the UK was now carrying out more than 100,000 tests a day.

Asked whether fewer people would have died if that target had been reached sooner, or even before the outbreak emerged, Shapps told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “Yes. If we had had 100,000 test capacity before this thing started and the knowledge that we now have retrospectively I’m sure many things could be different.

“The fact of the matter is this is not a country that had – although we’re very big in pharmaceuticals as a country – we’re not a country that had very large test capacity.”

The minister said comparisons with Britain’s excess mortality from coronavirus - a measure of the gap between the average number of deaths every year and those in excess of that - were unfair, saying there were “other factors taken into account”.

He added: “We shouldn’t look at the raw data and jump to conclusions on this because actually the NHS has been doing a terrific job and there will be other deaths outside of coronavirus that may or may not have happened had it been handled differently, without for example sufficient hospital capacity.”

Meanwhile, UK national statistician professor Ian Diamond also cautioned against making international comparisons.

Asked if the UK was heading for the worst death toll in Europe, he told Marr: “I wouldn’t say that at all and I would say that making international comparisons is an unbelievably difficult thing to do.

“In this country we have – in my opinion, and let me be clear I would say this, wouldn’t I – but I think we have the best reporting, the most transparent reporting, and the most timely reporting, because we include death registrations – we’ve been pushing our death registration reporting as fast as we possibly can.

“And then even after you look at the actual deaths, it’s incredibly important to recognise the context – so deaths are going to be more concentrated… in inner cities. If you have a rural country then it’s likely that your death rates will be lower.

“I’m not saying that we are at the bottom of any potential league table – it’s almost impossible to calculate a league table – but I’m not prepared to say that we’re heading for the top.”

Diamond also said indirect deaths that come on top of Covid-19 deaths are “not insignificant” as he warned a “lengthy and deep recession” would also affect people’s health.

Secretary of state for transport Grant Shapps.
Secretary of state for transport Grant Shapps.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Prime minister Boris Johnson is preparing to set out a “road map” to easing lockdown restrictions on Thursday.

Work patterns could be staggered to lessen the risk of contagion on public transport and teachers may have a better idea of when schools could return.

A new NHSX tracing app will be ready “in a few weeks” and is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, Shapps said, stressing that 60% of the population must download it on to a smartphone for it to be effective.

The government has also launched a recruitment drive for an army of 18,000 contact tracers for when restrictions are lifted.

Hancock had also raised hopes the government will be able to test 250,000 a day, but it is thought this relies on the antibodies test - which may be able to tell people if they have had the disease and are immune - being available.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said testing and tracing will be “so important” in the weeks and months ahead.

Thomas-Symonds told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge said he was “pleased” testing had been ramped up, and added: “But that in itself is not a strategy.

“Firstly, the testing has to be increased further, I mean the original target we were talking about a quarter of a million tests a day some time ago, but it has to be linked to tracing as well and it’s that testing and tracing that is going to be so important now in terms of easing the measures of the lockdown in the weeks and months ahead.”


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