Health minister defends UK testing approach after Whitty remarks
Chief medical officer had said lessons could be learned from German Covid-19 test system
A doctor collects a coronavirus test from a driver at a test centre on the grounds of a school in Fürstenwalde, Germany. Photograph: Patrick Pleul/AP
A health minister has insisted the UK “hasn’t got the testing issue wrong” after Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said there were lessons to learn from Germany’s high testing rate and slower increase in deaths.
Edward Argar, who toured the broadcast studios on Wednesday morning, said the UK recognised it needed to ramp up the number of tests being carried out but downplayed the importance of Germany as a model to follow.
He said the UK was seeing “rapid increases in testing” to about 14,000 a day and that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was determined to meet his target of 100,000 a day.
But asked about Whitty’s view that Germany had “got ahead” on testing, Argar said there were other factors in the country’s apparent success in flattening its curve.
“I would absolutely expect him to say we need to look at what other countries have done that has had a really positive impact,” he told Sky News. “But I would come back to his caveats in which he did also say there were a whole range of factors for why Germany’s death rate does at the moment appear to be lower.”
He also repeated suggestions that the UK lockdown was likely to be extended next week, even though the government has refused to confirm that.
“We need to start seeing the numbers coming down and that’s when you’re in the negative,” he told BBC Breakfast. “That’s when you have a sense when that’s sustained over a period of time, that you can see it coming out of that.
“We’re not there yet and I don’t exactly know when we will be. The scientists will tell us that they are constantly modelling the data and they’re constantly looking at those stats.
“We should also remember there is always a lag of a couple of weeks in the hospitalisation and death rate data behind the actions that we’ve taken to try to slow it down because that’s the nature of the disease.”
Experts have said the UK should not be coming out of the lockdown without developing a clear strategy for stamping out the virus in new hotspots by mass testing.
Ministers have been challenged repeatedly during the pandemic over their failure to increase testing quickly enough, prompting Hancock to promise to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.
Asked about the differences with Germany, where the number of deaths appear to be increasing less rapidly than in the UK, Whitty told the daily government press briefing on Tuesday: “We all know that Germany got ahead in terms of its ability to do testing for the virus, and there’s a lot to learn from that.” Germany is able to test 500,000 patients a week and is under pressure to increase this further.
Whitty had interjected after the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, gave a more circumspect reply, saying: “The German curve looks as though it’s lower at the moment, and that is important, and I don’t have a clear answer to exactly what is the reason for that.”
Widespread testing is regarded by many experts as a precondition for lifting the UK lockdown, which Vallance said on Tuesday appeared to be helping to control the spread of the disease.
The former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly challenged his successor over whether the government is testing widely enough, and the shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, has also pressed the issue, despite being generally supportive of the government’s approach.
There has been particular concern about the lack of availability of tests for NHS staff. Announcing the latest figures on Tuesday, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said 213,181 people had been tested for Covid-19, of whom 55,242 had tested positive.
The government took a decision when it announced the shift from “containing” the virus to “suppressing” it, saying it would no longer seek to isolate individual cases but instead would only test hospital patients.
The 100,000-a-day target has been thrown into doubt in recent days by the fact that several potential antibody tests – to determine whether people have contracted the virus in the past – have so far proved ineffective.
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