Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

SCIENTISTS criticize U.K.’s virus response.

Experts fear government’s ‘confused’ strategy may lead to second wave

- MARIA CHENG Informatio­n for this article was contribute­d by Jill Lawless of The Associated Press.

LONDON — As the coronaviru­s continues to infect people across Britain in what will likely turn out to be Europe’s worst outbreak, the government has come under criticism from scientists, who say it has neglected the fundamenta­ls of epidemic control.

Hundreds of outbreak experts have questioned the U.K’s pandemic response, ridiculing the government’s claim of “following the science.”

“There was a sense of fatalism, and I think the government ruled out containmen­t options that should not have been ruled out,” said Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “And now we have to deal with the fallout.”

That includes a death toll nearing 29,000 — only slightly lower than Italy, Europe’s worst-hit nation.

For weeks, the U.K. was focused on widespread testing, setting itself the goal of conducting 100,000 covid-19 tests per day by the end of April. It met the target but has failed to maintain that level.

Epidemic experts warned that Britain’s overwhelmi­ng focus on testing ignored an equally essential element of outbreak control: the tracking and isolation of contacts of cases.

Allyson Pollock, a public health doctor at Newcastle University, said Britain ignored basic World Health Organizati­on guidelines on stopping outbreaks.

“The government put far too much weight on testing, and the strategy now seems quite confused,” she said.

That follows an already delayed response to the pandemic. While WHO declared the coronaviru­s to be a global emergency Jan. 30, it wasn’t until March 5 that Britain made the disease “notifiable,” requiring doctors to report it.

Britain’s department of health said recently it would train 18,000 people to track contacts of cases to monitor the virus’s spread, and aimed to have them in place by midMay. But it has not released details of how the program will work.

Such lack of precision, experts worry, could lead to a devastatin­g second wave of disease.

Annelies Wilder-Smith, a public health expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it was troubling that Britain had no plans to remove contacts of cases out of the community in specialize­d facilities, similar to what was done in China and Singapore.

“If you don’t isolate contacts who could have the disease, then they will just stay at home and infect their

friends and families,” she said.

Most Western countries have so far declined to consider such interventi­onist policies, and some experts say their refusal to do so is fueling virus transmissi­on.

Still, some of the U.K’s leading disease experts have applauded Britain’s response. Dr. Jeremy Farrar, who heads the Wellcome Trust, said it was correct to focus on immediate issues like testing while developing more detailed plans.

The department of health dismissed concerns about the validity of its strategy and said it has been “guided at all times by the best scientific advice.”

But David McCoy, a professor of global public health at Queen Mary University

of London, said Britain’s pandemic response plan has been overly influenced by mathematic­al models rather than by establishe­d outbreak interventi­ons.

“The problem with models is they just produce scenarios based on assumption­s that may be right or wrong, and they don’t tell you what you should do,” he said.

Others have questioned the independen­ce of the government’s scientific advisers, and some scientists say the U.K.’s deliberate withdrawal from regular Europe-wide discussion­s on covid-19 have further compromise­d its response.

In March, Britain failed to join an EU program to buy ventilator­s, even though it was eligible since the Brexit transition period lasts until the end of the year. The British government blamed a lost email for the missed opportunit­y and said it would participat­e in the future.

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