A Commons science and technology committee report has found that the government’s decision to freeze community testing in March caused the virus to spread in care homes.
The report – which outlines 10 lessons for ministers and health advisors to learn – slams decisions which led to Public Health England (PHE) rolling back its community testing capacity early on in the epidemic.
The cross-party committee argued that PHE also failed to conduct a ‘rigorous’ analysis of other countries’ testing regimes.
In the first official assessment of the government’s management of the coronavirus outbreak, committee officials said PHE’s decision to concentrate testing to a ‘limited number of laboratories’ instead of surging capacity was the ‘most consequential made during this crisis’.
‘From it followed the decision on March 12 to cease testing in the community and retreat to testing principally within hospitals,’ the report said.
‘Amongst other consequences, it meant that residents in care homes – even those displaying Covid-19 symptoms – and care home workers could not be tested at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.’
It also heavily criticised the health body over its failure to disclose why it had downscaled testing in communities. The committee took particular aim at infection disease director, Professor Sharon Peacock, who avoided giving evidence on the matter despite promising to do so
‘The failure of PHE to publish the evidence on which its testing policy was based is unacceptable for a decision that may have had such significant consequences,’ the report read.
But PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie said stressed his organisation was not responsible for the country’s overall testing strategy. ‘This has been led by the Department of Health and Social Care,’ he said.
‘We provide a reference laboratory service for novel and dangerous pathogens; we do not operate mass testing programmes … PHE did not constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing.’
Among the recommendations is the need for government to boost testing capacity ahead of demand, clarify its approach to dealing with asymptomatic cases, and to provide ‘more transparency’ over scientific advice through its regular publication. It also suggested the government build up its vaccine manufacturing capacity.
Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has also weighed into the argument saying the government should have acted sooner to ramp up testing.
Appearing on Good Morning Britain, Brown said: ‘Contagion can rush through an old people’s home so easily we should have been testing.
‘The fatal decision was made on March 12 not to test people in the community and we’ve been the paying the price of it ever since.’