U.K. Gets Ready for Second Wave With Mass Test and Trace Program

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock promised to roll out a contact-tracing program and ramp up testing dramatically after weeks of criticism the government was falling behind in two areas seen as vital to stemming the coronavirus.

Hancock said Thursday he will make test appointments available to all key workers and their families through a website. The U.K. will also hire 18,000 people to operate the planned tracing program, he added.

The health secretary signaled the measures are a necessary step if the government is to avoid a second surge of the virus as it relaxes a nationwide lockdown that’s brought the economy to a near-halt.

“We need to bring the incidence of new infection right down,” Hancock said in a televised news conference. “We will then use a rigorous program of test, track and trace to keep it down so that we can safely release more of the restrictions.”

Boris Johnson’s government has faced criticism for failing to match the testing programs of countries like Germany and South Korea, which have managed to contain the virus more effectively. Ramping up capacity to test and trace are measures medical experts see as critical to stemming the spread of the coronavirus in the absence of a vaccine, which may yet take months to develop.

Though U.K. medics tracked the virus at the beginning of the outbreak and quarantined people as necessary, the government dropped the strategy March 12 due to a lack of capacity and a belief the disease had already spread too widely. That blind spot over the real spread of the virus is complicating decision-making for ministers as they try to devise a way out of the lockdown they imposed a month ago.

Pressure to Ease

Members of Johnson’s own Conservative party are pushing for more clarity about how the government will ease the restrictions as the economic cost mounts. Hancock has refused to discuss the government’s detailed strategy, saying doing so would encourage people to flout the restrictions. But on Thursday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for a “grown up” conversation with the public as her devolved administration set out a sector-by-sector plan to restarting activity.

About 27% of the U.K. workforce as been furloughed, while a quarter of businesses have temporarily stopped trading, according to the Office for National Statistics. The outlook for jobs is “horrendous” and the contraction could become the worst in several centuries, current and former Bank of England policy makers warned Thursday.

“Sturgeon’s approach is right: an open discussion about the hard trade-offs we face living with the virus for the foreseeable future,” former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said on Twitter. “U.K. ministers refusing to discuss the lockdown in public while briefing ideas to ease it in private can’t last. Time to treat the public like adults.”

Testing Struggles

It’s far from clear the government can satisfy its own criteria for easing social-distancing measures while keeping the Covid-19 transmission rate low enough to stop the exponential spread of the disease. Widespread testing and tracking of coronavirus cases will be central to whatever it decides.

John Newton, Public Health England’s director of health improvement overseeing the government’s testing program, said capacity is on track to reach 100,000 a day by the end of next week from 51,000 currently.

But Hancock had pledged to be carrying out that number of tests daily by the end of the month. Over the past week, health authorities have struggled to test even half as many people as they have capacity for: on Wednesday, just 23,560 were carried out, according to the government. Widening the group of people eligible for testing is aimed at increasing that number.

Hancock said home test kits are being planned, and mobile test sites are being rolled out with the help of the armed forces. There are now more than 30 regional test sites, with more being set up daily, he said, acknowledging the help of companies including Boots, Amazon.com Inc., Randox, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., Roche Holding AG, Oxford Nanopore Technologies Ltd., GlaxoSmithKline Plc and AstraZeneca Plc.

Antibody Studies

He also announced “one of the biggest virus infection and antibody studies that this country has ever seen,” using experts from Oxford University and the Office for National Statistics. Some 25,000 people will take part in the first phase, with participants providing regular samples and answering surveys in coming months, he said.

“We will use these tests to help us strengthen our scientific understanding and inform us on the big choices that we have to make about social distancing measures and how we start returning to a more normal life,” Hancock said.

The latest figures show more than 138,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19 and 18,738 have died from the disease in hospitals -- edging toward the 20,000 figure the government said it would consider a good result, even before non-hospital deaths are included.

Hancock said the government’s focus remains on reducing the rate of infection and that talk of easing the lockdown is premature.

“To lift the measures too soon and to risk a second peak would be a mistake,” he said. “It would undo all of the hard work that’s been done, and it would be both bad for our nation’s health and for our nation’s economy.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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