U.K. Covid Surge Testing Not Effective, Government Adviser Warns

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The U.K.’s plan for “surge testing” to detect and suppress new variants of coronavirus is unlikely to work unless it is done on a larger scale, a scientific adviser to the government said.

Mike Tildesley, an academic at the University of Warwick who advises Boris Johnson’s government on pandemic modeling, said authorities should “cast their net slightly wider” to pick up cases and make sure people with the virus are staying home.

Surge testing is being extended to areas around Manchester, northwest England, in a bid to control the spread of new variants which could prove resistant to vaccines, the health department said Monday. That’s in addition to eight other areas in England, which have seen more mobile testing sites and door-to-door visits by health officials.

Johnson insisted he is “very confident” the vaccines being used in the U.K. are effective against the South African variant of the disease. But early data found the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot has limited efficacy against mild and moderate cases. There were no clear results on more serious illness.

U.K. Officials Fear South Africa Strain Could Risk Recovery

While only 147 confirmed cases of the South Africa mutation have been identified in the U.K., the true number is likely to be far higher because until last week fewer than 10% of positive coronavirus tests were sequenced to find the variant.

Tildesley said surge testing needs to be on a bigger scale, not least because many cases are only coming to light several days after infection. “I fear it’s not going to be effective,” he said in an interview. “Unless you do slightly larger-scale blanket testing, it’s very hard to capture.”

“If you’re going to do surge testing, cast your net slightly wider than you think you might need to,” he added. “Why not do it over slightly larger geographical area than postcode areas? It would significantly increase the chances of detecting more cases and putting in the necessary isolation protocols.”

Self-isolation

Attention is turning to the U.K.’s 22 billion-pound ($30 billion) test and trace system as infections continue to fall across the country as a result of the third national lockdown. As increasing numbers of Britons are vaccinated, effective mass testing is crucial so officials can pinpoint fresh outbreaks, trace the contacts of positive cases and ensure they stay home.

U.K. Covid Surge Testing Not Effective, Government Adviser Warns

Tildesley said the key is to ensure people self-isolate properly. Dido Harding, the head of the test and trace program, told Parliament last week that at least 20,000 a day were failing to do so.

“We know that’s been a problem throughout, that only a relatively small proportion of people are seeing out their full 10-day isolation period,” Tildesley said. “We really need to get that message out, that that’s extremely important. It comes down to really clear government messaging.”

He said the government needs to incentivize people to isolate. Some on low incomes may be taking the 500-pound payment from the state for isolating but “still not be adhering because actually they still can’t afford to not be in work for 10 days,” he said.

Test and trace works best when infections come down to a manageable level and ministers need to make sure the system is effective when that happens, Tildesley said. “That’s when we need to put in the resources to make sure we’ve got as much capacity as possible to make that effective.”

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