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expert reaction to the latest COVID-19 press conference

The No 10 press conference, on Thursday 2nd April, featured Matt Hancock, Stephen Powis and John Newton. Testing for COVID-19 was one of the main topics covered. 


Prof Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:

“I am very pleased to see this new strategy announced by the government, this is major step forward to where the UK needs to be as a leader in the worldwide effort to combat COVID-19.

“We should be working towards the capability to test all key workers once a week for signs of the disease and have sufficient extra capacity to test suspected cases. We also need to bring in the antibody testing to show who is now immune to the disease and issue them certificates so that they can undertake more regular work.

“Moving forward, all these capabilities and more are required if we are to start lifting some of the current social distancing requirements. Without a treatment or a vaccine, we will be vulnerable to new outbreaks overwhelming the NHS if the restrictions are lifted. We need the extensive testing to help let people know they are positive, ensure they are quarantined and receive appropriate treatment.

“One pillar that seems to be missing from this strategy is contact tracing. There have been huge developments in this field recently. In countries such as Singapore, there are now mobile phone apps that can inform you that you have been in contact with a positive case. In those circumstances, you should probably get tested to see if you are also positive and then isolate if you are. This additional feature has been used successfully in other countries and would help to reduce the number of transmitting people and so contribute to containment procedures.”


Dr Mark Downs CSci FRSB, chief executive of the Royal Society of Biology (RSB), said:

“We welcome the Government’s recognition of both the immediate and longer-term need to enhance national diagnostic capability and expertise. Existing expertise in academia and industry can contribute to this effort, and the challenge we face shows the importance of nurturing a strong skills base and cutting-edge infrastructure. We have been struck by the huge eagerness of skilled bioscientists to contribute to combatting COVID-19. They will welcome the opportunity in the Government’s announcement to gather together national capability in delivering the testing and treatment innovations that the UK urgently needs.”


Prof Eleanor Riley, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease, University of Edinburgh, said:

“As with many other aspects of the current coronavirus epidemic, scaling up routine clinical testing in the face of rapidly escalating need requires a sensible, pragmatic balance between risk and benefit. In the case of testing for SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 this means being willing to cede a little control over where, how and by whom the tests are conducted in order to increase capacity and decrease turnaround times. Public Health England (and Health Protection Scotland) need to establish a network of local laboratories able to rapidly receive, process and report on tests for their local patients and NHS staff and essential workers.  Even more radically, PHE/HPS need to seriously consider the use of two entirely new tests reported today from King’s College London and from Cambridge University that have the potential to significantly increase throughput and/or speed up reporting. Importantly, the academic community has the skills, resources and willingness to contribute if only someone would take the sensible, pragmatic decision to cede a little control. There is a glimmer of hope in Matt Hancock’s “5 pillar programme” presented at the press briefing today, but still precious little detail.”


Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, said:

“It is good to finally hear the explanation from the Minister of Health about the difficulties in scaling up testing. This is down to a lack of preparedness in advance of a pandemic, which then impacts upon the ability to greatly and rapidly increase a national response, as we have seen in Germany. These are issues also being faced in other countries, for example France have carried out fewer tests than the UK.

“The Minister has promised 100 000 tests per day by the end of April. We shall see if this level of scale up is delivered. But throughout the coming weeks, we need to remember the lessons learned and realise that spare capacity in a health service or public health infrastructure is not ‘a waste of money’. It’s vital in times of urgent need, and there will be a ‘next time’.”


Dr Rupert Beale, Group Leader, Cell Biology of Infection Laboratory, Francis Crick Institute, said:

“Matt Hancock provided very welcome clarity about the true situation with regards to testing. He outlined clearly the challenges that will need to be overcome to increase testing capacity, and acknowledged some of the earlier mistakes that had been made. The new and much better plan relies heavily on repurposing the excellent pharmaceutical and biomedical research capability in our country towards highly accurate and reliable testing for COVID-19. At the Francis Crick Institute we have shown that this is possible on a small scale. If we can come together to deliver this on the massive scale that will be required it will help hugely in the fight against this deadly disease.”


All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:


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