A system of testing, tracking and tracing cases of Covid-19 could enable the UK to lift lockdown measures and avoid a second peak of the virus, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has said.
Speaking to the Health and Social Care Committee this week, Vallance said he expected a track-and-trace app currently being trialled in the Isle of Wight would do “more of the heavy lifting” on controlling the outbreak than social distancing once the pandemic was under control in the UK.
“The plan now is to absolutely get this under control with social-distancing measures, get the number of new cases down to a manageable number, and then to take more of the heavy lifting with testing and tracking of contacts and therefore allow some of the release of social distancing measures – but to do it in a way that’s part of a system that can pick up early outbreaks,” Vallance told MPs.
The government has ramped up its testing capacity in recent weeks, driven in part by a promise by health secretary Matt Hancock to ensure 100,000 tests were conducted every day by the end of April.
And NHSX is now testing a track-and-trace app that uses bluetooth to log when someone comes into contact with a person who has coronavirus in the Isle of Wight, with a view to rolling it out nationally if it proves successful.
“That is going to have to be a national system but with enough local and regional granularity to be able to pick up small fires picking up around the place,” Vallance said.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said last week that government could reintroduce restrictions that have been lifted “in a specific and localised way… in order to deal with localised outbreaks of the disease”.
If a system of testing, tracking and tracing cases is implemented well and social-distancing measures are used at an approptirate level, Vallance said “we should be able to avoid a second wave” of the disease.
A key element of the government’s strategy for tackling coronavirus is ensuring that there is not a “second peak” of the disease once lockdown measures are lifted.
Vallance said that while he was “optimistic” this could be achieved, it was with the caveat that this winter – bringing with it seasonal flu and other respiratory infections that can be confused with Covid-19 – “is going to be very difficult”.
Publishing SAGE advice
During the session, Vallance agreed with MPs that there should be transparency around decision-making but said this did not extend to publishing the advice from SAGE to ministers.
The government has come under increasing pressure in recent months to publish the advice from SAGE, amid claims from ministers that the government’s approach has been “led by science”.
“There’s information that politicians need to see to make decisions that they need to receive in confidence and be allowed to have some time to make those decisions,” Vallance told the MPs.
He said once decisions had been made, it was “reasonable” to expect people would be given the chance to examine the science used to inform policy decisions once those decisions had been made.
But he added: “It’s not my business to be releasing the information to the public before ministers have looked at it. My job here is to make sure ministers get the advice that they need in order to make decisions,” he said.
And he stressed that SAGE was an advisory body that presented government with “several options” for possible interventions, along with the associated risks and potential consequences of taking those interventions.
“Clearly what we don’t give advice on is absolutely precise policy decisions or absolute timings on things… those are decisions that ministers must take on the basis of the science,” he added.
And Vallance also disputed the claim that decisions on how to contain and mitigate the Covid-19 outbreak, which has been used by both the health secretary and the prime minister among others, have been “led by science”.
“I think the correct way of saying it is: the decisions are informed by science, they’re not led by science,” he said.
He added: “Decisions are made on all sorts of different grounds, of which science is a key input but it’s not the decision maker. SAGE does not make decisions, SAGE gives advice, it’s an advisory body, and ministers of course have to make decisions.”
But while Vallance did not endorse sharing SAGE’s direct outputs to ministers, he agreed with MPs that it would be beneficial to get into a frequent and “regular rhythm of publishing” of the inputs to the committee.
He said much of the evidence the committee had considered while formulating its advice has now been published, but acknowledged this was not happening as frequently as he would like. Recently, weeks have elapsed at a time with no new publications.
But he noted that the Government Office for Science, which handles the publication of such documents, was a small organisation that was working “flat out” to deal with its increased workload.