4 Feb: The modelling group says it is “unclear whether outbreaks can be contained by isolation and contract tracing. If a high proportion of asymptomatic cases are infectious, then containment is unlikely via these policies.”
17 Feb: A non-peer-reviewed paper later published on the Sage website describes “contact tracing as “a central public health response to infectious disease outbreaks, especially in the early stages of an outbreak when specific treatments are limited”.
26 Feb: Matt Hancock tells MPs the government is testing a “very large number” of people who have travelled back from countries with coronavirus.
3 March: The government’s coronavirus action plan is launched. We are now in the “contain” phase: “detect early cases, follow up close contacts, and prevent the disease taking hold in this country for as long as is reasonably possible”.
5 March: Jenny Harries tells the health select committee: “we have a test that Public Health England developed very early on in the outbreak for symptomatic individuals at that time…we can do 2,000 tests a day, and I think that by 13 March, it is going to be up to 3,200 with new labs coming on board”.
9 March: Public Health England says the NHS will be brought in to ease the strain on its laboratories by helping to test samples from those displaying symptoms, doubling the number of tests that can be carried out each day from 2,000 to 4,000.
11 March: Hancock is pressed by MPs about the testing regime. An SNP MP asks “for quicker and wider testing so that milder cases are diagnosed quickly, isolated and the spread reduced”. He says “We are absolutely ramping up the testing capabilities.”
12 March: The UK moves from the “contain” to the “delay” phase of its coronavirus plan. Health workers will no longer test people in their homes, but will continue to test people already in hospitals.
16 March: Whitty says the government is scaling up testing. The UK has carried out about 44,000 tests, South Korea has tested more than 248,647.
17 March: Vallance is asked by a select committee about South Korea’s testing and tracing strategy. “I think that would have been an absolutely brilliant thing to have had in January,” he says. “At the beginning, that sort of approach makes total sense.”
He says: “Public Health England has a capacity of about 4,000 or so [tests] per day. That is clearly not going to be enough going forward.”
He adds the priorities are “are patients in hospital in intensive care units; those with respiratory illnesses in hospital, pneumonias in particular; isolated cluster outbreaks, to make sure that we can understand what is happening there; and GP surveillance systems to try to get a handle on what is going on in the community”.
Asked about the decision to stop community testing, he says “that is what we had to do with the capacity we have. We need to use the testing in the right place at the moment. We simply do not have mass testing available for the population now”.
18 March: Boris Johnson announces a plan to carry out 25,000 tests a day. The next day he says daily testing will go “from 5,000 a day, to 10,000 to 25,000 and then up at 250,000”.
24 March: The government announces it has bought 3.5 million antibody tests.
25 March: Professor Sharon Peacock, the director of the national infection service at Public Health England, tells MPs on the science and technology committee that mass testing in the UK will be possible “within days”.
Her prediction is dampened by Chris Whitty at the government press conference hours later. “If they are incredibly accurate, we will work out the quickest way to release them. If they are not accurate, we will not release any of them.” Whitty adds that the delay in testing is due to a shortage of chemicals.
26 March: Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries rejects World Health advice to “test, test, test”, She says contact tracing and testing is still going on in “high-risk” establishments such as prisons and care homes, but, suggesting the WHO advice is aimed at less economically advanced countries, it is “not an appropriate mechanism as we go forward”.
Yvonne Doyle, director of health protection for Public Health England, tells the health select committee the “ship had sailed” on contact tracing by mid-March: “it became clear to us that there were what I call dead ends of contacts where you had a case, you tried to find the contact, and it just was not possible, because that gave us the indication that there was sustained community transmission”.
She says the situation was different in South Korea — there were “clusters of cases where the initial transmission was well understood, because they were in particular communities and actually it was quite regional“.
“They were using people’s personal details, including their bank accounts, and people were willing to convey that information in order to contact trace. It was quite personal information. We have looked at that, and SAGE looked at it and felt that it was not appropriate here,” she says.
She describes a plan “for 1 million tests, which people can do themselves…they will be able to take a blood test, send it back in the post and get it analysed. That is an antibody test that tells you whether you have had the condition.”