UK finally falls into line with international mainstream on coronavirus

London Letter: New emphasis on testing capacity cannot override terrible death toll

Boris Johnson returned to the Downing Street press conference on Thursday after five weeks, still looking drawn and sounding a little croaky after his illness but determined to deliver good news.

He said that Britain had passed the peak of the coronavirus outbreak without its National Health Service (NHS) being overwhelmed. British scientists were working on vaccines and treatments, testing capacity had increased dramatically and the reproduction rate of the virus was falling.

“We have come through the peak. Or rather we’ve come under what could have been a vast peak, as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel and we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us. And so it is vital that we do not now lose control and run slap into a second and even bigger mountain,” he said.

That warning was a signal to those, including many Conservative MPs, who want to see many of the lockdown restrictions lifted before the British economy is irreversibly damaged. Johnson made clear that the plan he will announce next week for a return to work and reopening of schools will not mean an immediate loosening of the lockdown and Downing Street has suggested that some measures could be tightened.


Advanced Britain

A month after its top medical advisers dismissed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advice on testing and contact tracing as inappropriate for a country as advanced as Britain, the government is now falling into line with the international mainstream. It is not yet clear if Britain has reached its target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April but it is likely to come close.

"Whatever the outcome tomorrow, I can assure you that the testing capacity we have built in the last few weeks is world-leading in its scale and sophistication and gives us the flexibility we need to deal with rises and falls in demand. As the pandemic evolves, we will have the testing capacity to meet changing demand across the country. It is there to serve us all," Britain's testing strategy co-ordinator John Newton told NHS colleagues.

Progress has been slower on contact tracing, which was abandoned in the early weeks of the epidemic. The government plans to launch a contact tracing app in mid-May and has started the process of recruiting 18,000 people to support the contact tracing effort. It is not clear yet, however, how the contact tracing operation will be organised or if local authorities will be involved.

Johnson, his ministers and medical and scientific advisers continue to identify the NHS's capacity to treat coronavirus patients as the primary measure of success. But the most glaring measure of the government's failure is Britain's death toll from coronavirus, which is at 26,771 close to the highest in Europe.

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said on Thursday that it was too soon to make international comparisons.

“You must learn lessons at the right point but what you don’t do frankly is do that in the middle of something. We are nowhere near the end of this epidemic. We are through the first phase of this, there is a very long way to run for every country in the world on this,” he said.

“I think let’s not go charging in to who has won and who has lost at this point. Let’s actually try and take it quite carefully, learning lessons from one another as we go along.”

Understated reality

Whitty said that international comparisons suffered from differences in how countries counted deaths. But Britain’s official death toll, which only includes those who were tested for coronavirus before they died, almost certainly understates the reality. And the slides he and his colleagues show at the Downing Street press conference every day show clearly a pattern of deaths that is outstripping most other European countries.

One way or another, Britain now appears to be on the right path in its effort against coronavirus. As a new report from the Institute for Government points out, the key now is making sure its plans are carried out.

“Even if a system is in place in theory, the government must ensure those systems would work in practice. There has been a significant gap and time lag throughout the crisis between ministerial promises and delivery,” it says.

“If ministers want to rely on, for example, a new trace and isolate scheme to contain the virus, they need to know both that their contact tracing is sufficiently robust, that people identified can and do access tests – without gaming them – and that people who are required to isolate do so.”