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Matt Hancock’s “scientifically valid” answers

Yesterday evening Matt Hancock was behind the lectern for the latest of Her Majesty’s Government’s Covid-19 “daily briefings”. Here’s a recording of the whole show:

There follows our edited highlights. First of all note that at around 5:00 into the video Matt says:

Building on successful pilots, we’ll be rolling out testing of asymptomatic residents and staff in care homes in England and to patients and staff in the NHS. This will mean that anyone who is working or living in a care home will be able to get access to a test whether they have symptoms or not. I’m determined to do everything I can to protect the most vulnerable and we now have the capacity to go further still. So from now, we’re making testing available to all over 65s and their households with symptoms and to all workers who would have to leave home in order to go to work and members of their households, again, who have symptoms. So from construction workers to emergency plumbers, from research scientists to those in manufacturing. The expansion of access to testing will protect the most vulnerable and help keep people safe and it’s possible because we’ve expanded capacity for testing thus far.

However he doesn’t go so far as to commit to a time scale for that “roll out”! Allegedly front line NHS staff are having problems getting tested, so when will the necessary extra testing capacity for OAPs and care workers be rolled out? Matt didn’t say.

We have previously mentioned the New Scientist’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis, and their chief reporter Adam Vaughan asked the final question of the evening at ~56:15:

Hi, you said you were recruiting 18,000 contact tracers. I wanted to ask, how many do you have today, what date will you hit 18,000 and how important are those tracers as a strategy for controlling the virus after the lockdown? And secondly, we heard today that the NHS contact tracing out where will be ready within three weeks. What’s your goal for the number of people you want to download it and how will you incentivise them to do so?

After a brief(ish) hesitation Matt answered as follows:

I knew we’d get some tough questions from the New Scientist! The answer to your questions are as soon as possible and as many as possible. But I know that’s not exactly a numerical answer. We’re recruiting the contact tracers. I’m sorry I don’t have the information to hand as to exactly how many we’ve recruited, but that is underway. We hope to have the contact tracers who will help when we find a positive test to work out who they’ve been in contact with and make sure they do the appropriate thing. We hope to have the contact tracers in place before or at the same as the app goes live and you’re right on the app.

We’re expecting that to be ready by the middle of May and both of these things together, because they work together along with the testing and they’ll help us to keep the level of new cases down once we’ve used social distancing measures to get those new cases down. That’s the best thing for health and it’s the best thing for the economy. It’s a work in progress. I appreciate that, other than saying the middle of May, I haven’t given you numerical details. I don’t have the data to hand, but I’ll try to find that for you. And then on the how many people, the more people who download the app and keep their Bluetooth on, the more effective the app is going to be.

So there is no answer other than as many as possible because if everybody downloads it will just be more effective at spotting who people have been in contact with through contact tracing and helping alongside the human contact tracing for people to be able to keep the R down by catching those who they may have transmitted the disease to. It’s also of course tied with the rules around isolation because if you are … What really also matters is if you’ve been in substantial contact with somebody who’s tested positive, making sure we get the right rules around what that person is then required and asked to do is also a critical part of this, this infrastructure that we’re building.

It seems Adam wasn’t entirely happy with that answer, so he asked a supplementary question:

From what you’ve just said, you said that the human contact traces and the app will work in tandem, and you’re saying if the app is coming in three weeks, does that mean the target for the 18,000 is in three weeks?

Mr. Hancock retorted, quick as a flash:

Before or at the same time as the app. Yeah.

Okay. Good stuff. Thank you very much indeed. Great to have the New Scientist at the Downing Street briefing and I hope my answer was scientifically valid. Thank you very much for joining us and no doubt see you again soon.

I paraphrase the Health Minister’s words only slightly:

“I know that’s not exactly a numerical or a scientific set of answers.”