Britain’s “inadequate” testing capacity was “not increased early enough or boldly enough” to stop the coronavirus spreading rapidly through Britain’s care homes, a cross-party group of MPs has said.
The Science and Technology Committee said a “lack of capacity” in Britain’s testing regime marked “one of the most significant problems of the handling of the pandemic to date”.
And they said that the government had yet to explain why it took the “pivotal decision” to opt for a “centralised, smaller-scale approach to testing” in the early days of the pandemic over mass testing programmes run by countries like South Korea.
The findings come in a 19-page letter to Boris Johnson from committee chair and former Conservative cabinet minister Greg Clark.
Testing levels were dramatically stepped up in April after health secretary Matt Hancock set a 100,000-a-day target.
But Clark said: “One of the most significant problems of the handling of the pandemic to date in the United Kingdom has been the lack of capacity to test people to determine whether they have Covid-19.
“Very low numbers of people were being tested well into March, with the number of tests actually falling at a critical time to 1,215 on 10 March.
“The committee has found a consensus embracing a broad range of experts from within the UK and overseas – including among the government’s scientific advisers that testing capacity has been too low."
And he told the prime minister that a March 12 decision by Public Health England to stop wider community testing in favour of testing primarily in hospitals “meant that residents in care homes – even those displaying Covid-19 symptoms” could not be tested “at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant”.
The committee chair said: “It is vital that the formal assessment made at the time is published without further delay, or, if it does not exist, PHE is open about this and explains why.”
Figures published by the Office for National Statistics last week found that more than a third of the UK’s coronavirus-related deaths had been among care home residents.
The stats body found there were 12,526 deaths in care homes in England and Wales during March and April where Covid-19 was listed on the death certificate.
Elsewhere in its letter, the Science and Technology Committee said the government had “extensively consulted” the “highly influential” Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) throughout the crisis.
It said the team had "made a serious attempt to distil the range of scientific views into advice to government“.
But Clark warned the prime minister that “transparency around scientific advice has not always been as clear as it should have been”, with a recently-published list of its members failing to distinguish between a “core membership” and those who have sporadically attended meetings.
The government is also being pressed on the “timely publication of the scientific papers on which SAGE has drawn for its advice”, with Clark pointing out that a government webpage meant to frequently share advice was not updated between March and 5 May.
“While it is welcome that some papers used to inform SAGE meetings have been published on this website, to date the majority of papers (92 out of 120) have not been published according to the full list of meeting papers published on GOV.UK, meaning much of the evidence informing SAGE is still not in the public domain,” Clark said.
The committee said a lack of transparency made it “difficult to corroborate the government’s assertion that it always follows the scientific advice”.
And Johnson is urged to make sure the public list of SAGE members is regularly updated in full; that papers are published “promptly after each relevant meeting”; and that the government regularly reveals “a summary of the scientific advice which has informed government decisions”.
On publishing the letter, Clark said: “The government should follow the best traditions of science in being transparent about the evidence and advice on which it makes decisions, and by being willing to continually learn from evidence and experience and not being afraid to adjust its approach in response.
“Greater transparency around scientific advice; putting capacity in place in advance of need, such as in testing and vaccines; collecting more data earlier and learning from other countries’ approaches are some of the early lessons of this pandemic that are relevant to further decisions that will need to be taken during the weeks and months ahead.
“We hope the government will act on these recommendations which are offered in a constructive spirit based on the evidence we have taken so far."
Downing Street said Covid-19 testing rates had increased "on an unprecedented scale" from 2,000 per day at the start of March to more than 100,000 by this month.
"Now everyone aged five and over who has symptoms and needs a test can get one – and we will continue to build this capacity," No.10 added in a statement.
"This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice."