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Boris Johnson’s £100bn testing moonshot a ‘threat to the NHS’

Independent Sage scientists worried about ‘poor performance’ of test and trace

Scientists in the Independent Sage group of self-appointed commentators on Covid-19 have outlined their concerns about the prime minister’s plans to develop and launch new testing technologies for the disease that would reportedly cost around £100 billion.

In the group’s latest online session on 11 September, Anthony Costello, a professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at University College London and former director at the World Health Organisation, described the ‘moonshot’ as “a distraction” and “something of a PR stunt”.

“It sounds great and kicks everything down to March or whenever,” he said. “My big fear about this is that the £100bn being talked about, which is nearly three quarters of the NHS budget, would be a massive—not only a distraction—but a threat to the whole of the NHS that we’ve come to cherish over the 70 years.”

Costello added: “I am very worried about politics of that.”

Others have outlined what they see as shortcomings of the current test and trace system, and called for more money to be invested in supporting people to isolate and in local public health authorities—instead of into the unproven new tech that would be needed for the moonshot.

Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at UCL and former member of the government-appointed Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said the UK is “in a vulnerable situation as a country” and added that “testing can help to get us out of this”.

But he said that “we’re doing pretty poorly” on the test and trace results so far, adding that data show that far less than 50 per cent of people asked to isolate are doing so. “With those sorts of figures, it calls into question whether the test and trace programme is functional at all at the moment.”

Christina Pagel, a mathematician and professor of operational research at UCL, said: “We know what works, we can see from other countries that really effective contact-tracing works, we know how it’s done, you can do it for a fraction of the £100bn.”

“If they want to spend money, why not spend it on actually supporting people to isolate?” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The session also heard of “mixed messages” coming out of government circles, and the “need for far more clarity” in messaging, including avoiding exaggeration on the promise of new, yet-to-be validated tests.

Alongside their session, Independent Sage published a paper on the matter on 11 September. It says the government should:

  • establish at the outset the primary functions and pathways for testing
  • increase overall testing effectiveness, through a focus on contacts and isolation
  • put in place mechanisms to assess the effectiveness of testing
  • assimilate testing into existing structures, including NHS and local public health
  • provide clear messaging and engagement with the local communities
  • ensure public trust in new technologies, by avoiding exaggerating about what tests can do

In response to criticisms, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said:

“This country now has the capacity to test for coronavirus on an unprecedented scale and we are going further by investing £500 million in next generation tests, like saliva tests and rapid turnaround tests that can deliver results in just 20 minutes.

“We are increasing capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October, and the ability to get rapid, on-the-spot results, will significantly increase our ability to fight coronavirus, stop the spread and for our economy to recover.”