England ‘risks Covid-19 surge’ without test-and-trace safety net

The government is facing increasing pressure from its scientific advisers over the decision to ease England’s lockdown.

Prof Peter Horby has become the latest adviser to express his concerns, saying on Saturday that while thousands of people a day are still becoming infected with coronavirus, lockdown measures may be being eased too soon.

Peter Horby. Photograph: Nuffield department of medicine

Horby, of the University of Oxford, joined Sir Jeremy Farrar and Prof John Edmunds, all members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), in warning that ministers were taking risks.

Boris Johnson has announced a gradual easing of the lockdown in England from Monday, when friends and relatives will be able to meet in parks and gardens in socially distanced groups of six.

“Happy Monday” will also signal the reopening of schools – allowing children in nurseries, early-years settings, reception, year 1 and year 6 to return to class – as well as more shops, with outdoor retail and car showrooms able to resume operations.

Horby told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “You know, we have still got 8,000 cases a day. We have been very successful in bringing it down, decreasing the numbers because of the social distancing.”

But he said it was vital “we don’t lose control again”.

He highlighted the scientific advisers’ advice regarding the NHS test and trace system, which is being rolled out across England with the help of 25,000 contact tracers.

“Sage has always been very clear that that needs to be in place and fully operational before social distancing can be safely relaxed.

“We are not entirely sure what the effect of relaxing the social measures will be, and so we need to have that safety net of the test, trace and isolate system. And, as we know, it’s not yet fully operational, so I think that is where the risk lies.

“We are entering a period where there is a risk of increasing transmission, but we don’t yet have that safety net fully in place. Returning to a situation where we lost control again is far worse than another week or two of social measures,” he said.

The test-and-trace programme will not be operational at a local level until the end of June, and an accompanying app has been delayed by several weeks.

Horby said he was concerned about a second wave of infection.

“That’s the risk that we are all very concerned about. It is a fragile time. We have to be very careful,” he said.

How Covid-19 contact tracing can help beat the pandemic

Prof Edmunds told Sky News that officials were “trying to replace these blanket measures with a much more targeted approach, this track and trace, where instead of everybody being in lockdown you put those who are most at risk in lockdown for a couple of weeks.”

But because the new system only started on Thursday, “we can’t be sure that is working effectively yet, and yet we’re going ahead and making these changes anyway”.

Farrar also said the test-and-trace system needed to be “fully working” before measures were eased.

He wrote on Twitter: “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice.

“TTI (test, trace and isolate) has to be in place, fully working, capable dealing any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results & infection rates have to be lower. And trusted.”

The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Munira Wilson, said: “The decision by key members of Sage to go public with their concerns shows that ministers are no longer following the science.

“The test, trace, isolate system that we need to keep people safe is not yet fully functional. The NHSX app is delayed for an unknown period. For seven days straight the government has been unable to provide even basic data about the number of people tested.

“On top of these failings, public health messaging has been badly undermined as people see it’s one rule for the Tory elite and another for everyone else. Given this chaos, measures to lift lockdown appear premature.”

A poll conducted by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) of 2,000 of its members revealed that nine out of 10 plan to open their schools on 1 June, but with fewer children than the government has advised, despite opposition from teaching unions.

Johnson has said the government’s five key tests required for easing lockdown have been met and schools can admit more pupils from Monday.

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

  • The NHS has sufficient capacity to provide critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK
  • A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from Coronavirus
  • Reliable data to show that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board
  • Operational challenges including testing and personal protective equipement (PPE) are in hand with supply able to meet future demand
  • Confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS

The 450,000-member strong National Education Union (NEU) has said the date is “not viable”.

Other unions, including the NAHT and the NASUWT, raised their concerns about reopening schools on 1 June with the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, on Thursday.

Minutes of Sage meetings released by the government on Friday revealed a sense of rising anxiety as scientists saw the number of cases grow faster than expected at the start of the outbreak, with the experts recommending on 13 March that household isolation and the protection of older and more vulnerable people should happen “soon”.

Three days later, the advice changed: the committee heard there could be 10,000 new cases a day, prompting them to recommend further physical distancing “as soon as possible” adding that a “significant increase in testing” was needed.

Sage also considered documents on the track-and-trace system, with one report from behavioural scientists saying they anticipated “major behavioural barriers” to people using the NHS contact-tracing app, which would prevent it from being the primary method of containing outbreaks.

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