The UK Government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy

Fresh from some very mixed messaging in the United Kingdom’s mainstream media, yesterday the UK Government announced the release of their “Covid-19 recovery strategy”:

This document describes the progress the UK has made to date in tackling the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, and sets out the plans for moving to the next phase of its response to the virus.

The strategy sets out a cautious roadmap to easing existing measures in a safe and measured way, subject to successfully controlling the virus and being able to monitor and react to its spread. The roadmap will be kept constantly under review as the epidemic, and the world’s understanding of it, develops.

The section of the roadmap of most interest to us is 5.6, “Testing and tracing”. There we learn that:

Mass testing and contact tracing are not, in themselves, solutions, but may allow us to relax some social restrictions faster by targeting more precisely the suppression of transmission. The UK now has capacity to carry out over 100,000 tests per day, and the Government has committed to increase capacity to 200,000 tests per day by the end of May.

The Government has appointed Baroness Harding to lead the COVID-19 Test and Trace Taskforce. This programme will ensure that, when someone develops COVID-19-like symptoms, they can rapidly have a test to find out if they have the virus – and people who they’ve had recent close contact with can be alerted and provided with advice. This will:
● identify who is infected more precisely, to reduce the number of people who are self isolating with symptoms but who are not actually infected, and to ensure those who are infected continue to take stringent self-isolation measures; and
● ensure those who have been in recent close contact with an infected person receive rapid advice and, if necessary, self-isolate, quickly breaking the transmission chain.

This cycle of testing and tracing will need to operate quickly for maximum effect, because relative to other diseases (for example SARS) a proportion of COVID-19 sufferers almost certainly become infectious to others before symptoms are displayed; and almost all sufferers are maximally infectious to others as soon as their symptoms begin even if these are initially mild.

For such a system to work, several systems need to be built and successfully integrated. These include:
● widespread swab testing with rapid turn-around time, digitally-enabled to order the test and securely receive the result certification;
● local authority public health services to bring a valuable local dimension to testing, contact tracing and support to people who need to self-isolate;
● automated, app-based contact-tracing through the new NHS COVID-19 app to (anonymously) alert users when they have been in close contact with someone identified as having been infected; and
● online and phone-based contact tracing, staffed by health professionals and call handlers and working closely with local government, both to get additional information from people reporting symptoms about their recent contacts and places they have visited, and to give appropriate advice to those contacts, working alongside the app and the testing system.

All of this begs several questions, from our perspective at least:

  • Why the sole emphasis on “widespread swab testing”? Why not so called “saliva tests” for example?
  • How is the “new NHS COVID-19 app” going to work? Not least because the most vulnerable people in our communities are unlikely to be the proud possessors of a recently released smartphone.
  • How will the “valuable local dimension to testing, contact tracing and support” be integrated with the eventual NHS Covid-19 app?

Watch this space to discover if we ever get answers to these and other questions!


Mass Periodic Testing for Covid-19

We have reported recently on both the United Kingdom’s attempts to meet their stated “100,000 tests per day by the end of April” target and the subsequent setting up of the “Independent SAGE” committee by Sir David King, which we initially dubbed the “Alternative SAGE” committee, or “Alt SAGE” for short.

The first Independent SAGE committee meeting will be broadcast on YouTube at 12:00 BST today. We cannot help but wonder if they will discuss the concept of “Mass Periodic Testing”, or MPT for short.

The idea was introduced by Professor Julian Peto from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in a letter to the British Medical Journal on March 22nd 2020. Here is an extract:

In Editor’s Choice of 19 March Godlee mentions the urgent need for increased capacity to test frontline healthcare workers serologically to verify their immunity to the covid-19 virus. Even more urgent is capacity for weekly viral detection in the whole UK population. This, together with intensive contact tracing, could enable the country to resume normal life immediately. The virus could only survive in those who are untested, and contact tracing would often lead to them. Within the tested population anyone infected would be detected within about a week (0 to 7 days plus sample transport and testing) of becoming infectious.

Prof. Peto’s suggestion involves testing the vast majority if the population of the UK for Covid-19 every week. His letter continues:

Centrally organised facilities with the capacity to test the entire UK population weekly (in 6 days at 10 million tests per day) can be made available much more quickly and cheaply than a vaccine, probably within weeks. This heroic but straightforward national effort would involve a crash programme to enlist all existing PCR (polymerase chain reaction) facilities, acquire or manufacture the PCR reagents, and agree protocols including a laptop program for barcode reading in smaller laboratories. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just authorised a test kit for detecting the Covid-19 virus that can be run on machines used in the NHS for HPV screening. Only laboratories that do PCR routinely would participate, subject to central quality control and at cost price. The Wellcome Sanger Institute, UK Biocentre, and smaller academic laboratories, together with all commercial facilities, should have enough machines or can get more immediately from the manufacturers. The 24-hour extra staffing to run their machines continuously would be bioscience students, graduates, and postgraduates familiar with PCR who already work in or near the laboratory. Processing capacity equivalent to 4000 Roche COBAS 8800 systems is needed, and the UK may already have both the machines and the trained staff in post or immediately available.

Roche cobas 8800 PCR testing system

As you may have noticed, such a “heroic effort” has not yet begun. We have not yet achieved a consistent 100,000 tests per day, let alone the 10 million tests per day envisaged by Julian Peto. Skipping to his conclusion:

By the time the first test is done there may be more than a million infected people who must be treated or remain quarantined at home or in care until all residents at the address test negative. That unavoidable crisis for the NHS would be ameliorated by earlier diagnosis and treatment, and hence reduced pressure on intensive care, and by having all staff as well as patients tested regularly. Contacts of positive people who test negative could choose continued home quarantine or, at little extra risk, choose to join a group of up to 10 test-negative contacts (usually with other family members). Subsequent weekly national testing, together with behavioural changes and efficient contact tracing, would find progressively fewer infections and might soon be extended to a month. This emergency system would only be needed for about 2 months but could be rapidly reintroduced to control any future epidemic caused by a new virus.

Five weeks have elapsed since the letter was published, and an avoidable crisis for the NHS is still ongoing. According to Boris Johnson’s Twitter feed over the weekend:

However according to today’s Daily Telegraph:

When today’s lunch time meeting has concluded will the Alt SAGE committee have recommended an “end [to] the absurd, dystopian and tyrannical lockdown”, mass periodic testing or some alternative “middle way”?

Watch this space!


Covid-19 testing in the UK

On April 2nd 2020 (not the first!) the UK Government’s web site published a press release stating that:

The UK will carry out 100,000 tests for coronavirus every day by the end of this month, Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged today.

Increased testing for the NHS will form part of a new 5-pillar plan, bringing together government, industry, academia, the NHS and many others, to dramatically increase the number of tests being carried out each day.

Professor John Newton the Director of Health Improvement for Public Health England, has been appointed to help deliver the new plans and bring together industry, universities, NHS and government behind the ambitious testing targets.

So how is Matt’s pledge and John’s delivery plan looking at the end of April? According to the Department of Health and Social Care‘s latest daily update:

As of 9am 30 April, there have been 901,905 tests, with 81,611 tests on 29 April.

Not quite there yet then, though there is still one more April update to come! Much more recently another Government press release on April 28th announced that:

Anyone in England with symptoms of coronavirus who has to leave home to go to work, and all symptomatic members of the public aged 65 and over, will now be able to get tested, the government has announced today.

This will mean people who cannot work from home and those aged 65 and over can know for sure whether they have coronavirus and need to continue isolating.

Members of their households with symptoms – a new continuous cough or high temperature – will also be eligible for testing.

Anyone eligible can book a test using an online portal.

The government also announced that NHS staff, care home staff and care home residents will be eligible for testing whether or not they have symptoms.

How’s that coming along do you suppose? I’m over 65 and I’d very much like to know for sure whether I have had coronavirus. I even have some of the symptoms! However there is evidently a problem. The Government’s online testing portal told a familiar tale yesterday evening:

Today I discovered via Twitter that somebody else managed to get further through the process than I did, only to discover:

I myself am also forced to wonder why on Earth a United States credit checking agency such as TransUnion should be involved in the process of obtaining a long overdue test for a UK citizen suffering from the symptoms of Covid-19?

Answers on a virtual postcard in the space provided for that purpose below! Should I receive an answer to that question I’ll pose another one:

What does the UK Government make of this proposal in the British Medical Journal for “Mass periodic testing” of the citizens of this sceptred isle?

At the end of (say) 3 weeks of lock-down all households and care homes would return self-taken swabs taken on that date from all residents. All residents would test negative in most homes, so most people could resume normal life within a month of starting the lock-down.

Meanwhile on the NHS front line:

[Edit – May 1st]

Here is the BBC’s video of this evening’s Covid-19 daily briefing from Downing Street, hosted by Matt Hancock:

Fast forward to 36:40 where Channel 4’s Victoria Macdonald asks:.

There was a report in the HSJ that a sample would only be counted once it had been processed, but that testing has been changed and it’s counted once it’s been posted out. Is that the case?

Matt swiftly passed that buck to Professor John Newton, and it’s not until 38:40 that Victoria receives an answer:

There’s been no change to the way that tests are counted. As we’ve developed new ways of delivering tests we’ve taken advice from officials as to how this should be counted.

So, the tests that are within the control of the programme, which is the great majority, are counted when the tests are undertaken in our laboratories. But any test which goes outside the control of the programme, they’re counted when they leave the programme, so that is the tests that are mailed out to people at home and the tests which go out in the satellite. So that is the way they are counted, have always been counted, and the way we were advised to count them by officials.

So that’s the way they are counted, have always been counted, and the way we were advised to count them by officials.

According to Matt Hancock:

That’s all set out on

Whilst according to the BBC:

The total testing figure includes 27,497 kits which were delivered to people’s homes and also 12,872 tests that were sent out to centres such as hospitals and NHS sites. However, these may not have been actually used or sent back to a lab.

According to my hasty mental arithmetic:

122,347 – 27,497 – 12,872 = 81,978

Those mysterious “official” bean counters have a lot to answer for!

[Edit – May 8th]

The UK Government’s Covid-19 “contact tracing” smartphone app created by NHSX is now available to residents of the Isle of Wight as part of an initial trial. Here’s an initial review of the app:

Isi’s Dad’s thoughts? Here’s a brief summary:

The app is named NHS COVID-19, and is described by the NHS as “an automated system for rapid symptom reporting, ordering of swab tests, and sending targeted alerts to app users”. It’s one of three parts of the trial which has just started here, the other two being:

  • “web-based Contact Tracing and Advisory Service (CTAS) and increased capacity to provide tailored alerts to all contacts by phone.”
  • “widespread availability of rapid swab testing kits to make sure confirmed cases remain in isolation, and support rapid detection and isolation of higher-risk contacts.”

This is quite different from what has been generally reported: the NHS sees the app primarily for rapid symptom reporting and the ordering of swab test kits.

Installing and configuring the app is simple, provided that you have an iPhone running iOS 11 or later, or a compatible Android phone, about which I will say no more…

Early indications here are that this app protects the user’s privacy, doesn’t track users at all, doesn’t flatten batteries, and is unobtrusive to the point where you can’t even tell whether it is detecting contacts. It doesn’t appear to be the contact tracing app which was expected, though: it’s not ‘track and trace’ so much as ‘diagnose and test’, and may explain where Boris Johnson intends sending his promised 200,000 test kits a day.