Officials ignored pandemic warnings from health experts 15 years ago and NEVER drew up plans for mass testing – The Sun

OFFICIALS ignored pandemic warnings from health experts 15 years ago and NEVER drew up plans for mass testing in the UK, Whitehall sources have revealed.

As the government continues to come up fire for failure to ramp up testing fast enough, it has emerged preparedness plans were never put in place.

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Public health officials failed to consider the need for mass community testing in the UK, despite warnings from the World Health Organisation (WHO), according to The Telegraph.

A senior government adviser revealed planners "did not discuss" testing because they thought the next outbreak would be an influenza not a virus.

Ministers and officials from Public Health England, the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health decided against drawing up plans for mass testing, after WHO warned in 2005 it would drastically slow the spread of disease.

Chairman of the official committee advising the government on infectious disease and coronavirus Professor Graham Medley said: "that may have been a mistake".

Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night promised that by the end of the month the UK would be testing 100,000 people a day in a five-pillar plan to stop the spread of COVID-19.

But the government has come under attack from all sides over its failure to organise mass-testing as soon as coronavirus started to spread rapidly through Britain.

The WHO warned countries in 2005 that testing was critical to fighting a pandemic in a document called Responding To The Avian Influenza Pandemic Threat.

The document warned: "Because the initial symptoms of H5N1 (bird flu) infection mimic those of many diseases common in these countries, accurate case detection requires the testing of large numbers of samples."

"Improved local capacity is therefore a more rational solution."

Senior Whitehall officials confirmed that the need for mass testing "did not figure in our thinking" when drawing up pandemic plans, ignoring the WHO advice.

One senior Whitehall official said: "We didn't plan for mass community testing at all, no. You could argue that was the wrong thing to do."

"We focused on influenza because we believed it was the next one coming down the track. It's fair to say that next time we would take a vastly different approach."

He added: "There is no reason why Public Health England and ministers couldn’t have reached out and got this thing going earlier."

Other countries such as Germany have had plans drawn up for years in response to the advice from the WHO and were able to move incredibly quickly when Europe became the "epicentre" of coronavirus.

Germany has been testing as much as 100,000 people a day, and have tested almost a million people since the start of the outbreak.

Their own plans were drawn up in 2005 and then updated in 2009 in line with advice from the WHO.

Singapore also had extraordinary testing and isolation plans in place since the SARS outbreak and have been able to contain cases to just over 1000 cases and five deaths.

Professor Medley, who also advises the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the current lack of testing meant current official modellers were playing catch up to tackle and track coronavirus.

He said: "Mass public testing has never been our strategy for any pandemic that I’m aware of.

"The current problem is based upon the fact that we didn't invest in preparedness before all this happened.

"We always knew that when it came to a pandemic, it was a case of when, not if.

"But there has been a focus on influenza preparedness. And for things like influenza, mass testing is not important, and it never figured as a potential strategy.

"The focus was on pandemic influenza and that's because it happens on a much more regular basis. Pandemics with other viruses happen more rarely – but they do happen.

"It was always known that this was going to happen at some point…they have been planning for it but there hasn't been the investment."


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Professor Medley said the government should have brought in 2000 more laboratories in to help in October.

He said testing was "extremely powerful" so experts could understand what was going on across the county.

"At the end of it we'll be able to look back and say that was probably the wrong thing to do, and perhaps we didn’t make the right decision."

The government also failed to improve the preparedness plans they did have in place, after a three day test run of pandemic procedures in 2016 showed Britain would be quickly overwhelmed by a severe outbreak and the NHS would not cope.

The imagined epidemic used in 2016 was also an influenza, and so officials did not discuss mass testing as a way to fight it.

Simulations of outbreaks done by NHS trusts in 2007 and 2008 also showed there would be shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). 

A source at PHE said they were not responsible for ramping up tests for NHS workers and said the agency had met its targets for testing unwell coronavirus patients in hospital.

"The rollout of the Covid-19 diagnostic test by PHE to other parts of the UK is the fastest deployment of a novel test to PHE and NHS labs in recent history, including in the swine flu pandemic in 2009," a PHE spokesman said.

The Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

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