The Daily Telegraph

Whitty clashes with Hunt as he defends decision to abandon mass testing

Chief medical officer tells health committee officials did the best they could with ‘tools at their disposal’

- By Laura Donnelly Health editor

THE chief medical officer has clashed with Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, over testing, saying officials did their best with the “tools at their disposal”. In heated exchanges, Prof Chris Whitty defended the decision to abandon mass testing and the tracing of contacts on March 12, saying it required “an infrastruc­ture we did not have”.

The decision to stop routine testing for several months has previously been identified as one of the reasons behind Britain’s high Covid death toll.

Yesterday Prof Whitty defended the decisions taken, saying the public health system was not in a position to quickly ramp up testing in the way that was needed. “We had no capacity to do it on the scale that was needed for the kind of epidemic that we had. Given that capacity, that was in my view the correct advice,” he said.

Asked by Mr Hunt, the chairman of the Commons health committee, why he had not advised that testing be ramped up quickly in January or February, Prof Whitty said: “I respectful­ly differ. The idea that you can suddenly switch this on, I’m afraid, is incorrect. The way you run emergencie­s badly is to try and run them based on a theory of what you could do rather than with the tools you have at your disposal. That is the way we had to run it and that is the way we did run it.”

Prof Whitty told Mr Hunt the Sage advisory group had consistent­ly said more testing capacity was needed. But he said that, given the capacity, it was the correct advice to stop widespread community testing on March 12.

The decision followed a February Sage meeting that heard Public Health England could only cope with testing and tracing contacts of five cases a week, with modelling suggesting this could be increased to 50 cases. On the day routine testing ended, the UK had 421 new cases. A month later there were more than 8,000 cases daily.

On why a test, trace and isolate system similar to South Korea’s was not modelled earlier this year, Prof Whitty told MPS: “I’m absolutely confident, chair – and let me be very clear about this – that we had no capacity to do it on the scale that would have been needed, or for the kind of epidemic we had.

“Sage was consistent, and I was consistent, in saying we needed considerab­ly more testing capacity. Many of the problems we had came out of our lack of capacity, but testing alone is not sufficient to have a full test, contact, trace and isolate system. This requires an infrastruc­ture we did not have, which was built up by places like Korea.”

Pointedly, Prof Whitty told Mr Hunt: “If we wished to build this capacity up, we could have done it in previous years.”

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