'Opportunity missed' - Norwich scientists on government Covid test rebuff

Covid testing supervisor, Imogen Ince, right, and testing safety steward Rachel Quinton, at the UEA

Asymptomatic testing was done at the UEA, but the government rebuffed an offer for wider Norwich testing. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

Scientists who tried to convince the government to allow them to carry out weekly Covid-19 tests on everyone in Norwich have said a report from MPs shows an opportunity was missed.

Decisions during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic rank among "the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced" - according to the study.

The wide-ranging report from the cross-party Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, said the UK policy was to take a "gradual and incremental approach" to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns.

A lockdown exit roadmap is to be published in the week commencing February 22.

The report by MPs was critical of the delay in ordering the first lockdown. - Credit: PA

But the report also highlighted how the government rebuffed approaches from university laboratories to help stem the spread of Covid-19 through test and trace.

It stated: "The test and trace operation followed a centralised model initially, meaning assistance from laboratories outside Public Health England — particularly university laboratories — was rebuffed.

"It is now clear that the optimal structure for test and trace is one that is locally driven with the ability to draw on central surge capacity, but it took the best part of a year to get to that point."

Director of the Earlham Institute, Prof Neil Hall.

Director of the Earlham Institute, Prof Neil Hall. - Credit: Earlham Institute

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Scientists at the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park were among those "rebuffed".

They had wanted to carry out a lateral flow testing trial, starting with a few wards in the city and growing to cover more of the population.

The MPs' report was critical of the government, stating: "Other resources could have been used more effectively in the initial expansion of testing capacity."

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Prof Neil Hall, director of the Earlham Institute, said it had been "incredibly frustrating" that, despite support from a number of Norfolk MPs, the government had not looked to local help to combat Covid-19's spread.

He said: "I am glad the report has mentioned that. In terms of the test and trace story, there was an opportunity missed.

"In April and May last year there was a desperate shortage of tests and the government was trying to set up the Lighthouse Labs from scratch, while there were scientists ready with the equipment to help and we were not being called on.

"That was a time when a working test and trace system would have changed the trajectory of the pandemic in the UK.

"What it has turned into now is very different. It's now a service for people to find out if they have got Covid and to stay at home and the whole track element of it has disappeared.

"It was incredibly frustrating. There were many people who wanted to help. To set up testing we really needed engagement from the government."

Covid-19 LAMP Testing at Earlham Institute’s dedicated laboratory.

The Earlham Institute was among universities rebuffed by the government over Covid-19 testing. - Credit: Earlham Institute

The Earlham Institute did end up working with the University of East Anglia to provide asymptomatic testing.

Prof Hall said that had helped prevent infection. He said: "We know from that experience that we were calling students who didn't know they were infected, but were on their way to the pub or, in some cases, to hospitals.

"So every time we contacted someone to tell them to isolate we knew that was preventing the chain of infection."

Prof Hall said he welcomed the report. He said: "It's not as critical as I think it could have been.

"But there is lots in there and it is important that lessons are learned from it. It does cover a lot of the most important aspects."

Prof Paul Hunter, from the UEA, has encouraged people to donate to the WHO's Covid-19 Response Fund

Prof Paul Hunter, from the UEA's Medical School. - Credit: UEA

Virus expert Prof Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, said: "Even though there is not a lot in the report which is novel, I think it is really good that is is all in one place."

The report was critical over the advice scientists gave in the early days - when experts and ministers sought to "only moderate the speed of infection" through the population - flattening the curve - rather than seeking to stop its spread altogether.

Prof Hunter said: "To me, it shows that the big failing was we prided ourselves on being really prepared for a pandemic, but the reality is that we were not.

"The big problem early on was that virtually all the scientific advisors in the government were influenza specialists.

"Covid-19 was not flu and it behaved quite differently to flu, so I think that was a big mistake."

Nurse Maria Alexiou preparing COVID vaccinations at the new mass vaccination centre at Connaught Hal

The vaccination roll-out was praised in the report and by Prof Paul Hunter. - Credit: Danielle Booden

While he said the test and trace system was "a disaster" and its failure had contributed to deaths in care homes, he said the production and roll-out of vaccines, praised in the report, had been "brilliant".

Speaking on Sky News on Tuesday, Stephen Barclay, minister for Cabinet Office, said the government did "take decisions to move quickly" and said he had "not had a chance to read [the inquiry]".

But he said there were lessons to learn, and that the government took decisions based on scientific advice, with "those scientists themselves operating in a very new environment".

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