On testing and tracing, the UK started the battle ahead of other countries, with a system enabling Public Health England to trace the first victims’ contact with the virus and thereby attempt to contain it, as planned in the first axis of the government's strategy. During February and until early March, nearly 4,000 people at risk of infection were warned, based on data collected from approximately 590 positive cases.
Despite the usefulness of the scheme, the testing capacity, which was restricted to eight Public Health England laboratories, was not increased and was quickly overloaded. Faced with this issue, on March 12, the government changed its approach to testing by deciding to abandon its strategy to track all symptomatic patients, choosing instead to restrict the use of tests to hospitals.
This change of strategy marked the transition to the second axis of the government's strategy: delaying the spread of the virus within the population by flattening the famous curve, without attempting to stop it.
This strategy wasn’t reviewed before April 2, when the testing capacity reached 10,000 tests per day, at which point the government decided to put testing back at the heart of its approach. The proposed plan aims to expand the number of testing centres beyond the eight Public Health England labs to the private sector and universities, to add serological tests on top of existing tests, and to ensure a capacity of 100,000 tests per day by May. The United Kingdom therefore went from 2.4 tests per 1,000 inhabitants on April 2 to 44.4 tests per 1,000 inhabitants on June 2, compared with 47.2 in Germany on May 24 (latest available data). At the end of May the daily testing capacity exceeded 160,000.
This increase in testing capacity enabled the NHS to launch a new testing and tracing service on May 27, allowing anyone who is symptomatic to be tested and then to warn people they may have recently been in contact with. To this end, the government is developing a Bluetooth tracking application, due for national roll-out in June, and aims to recruit 18,000 people to replicate the efforts of Public Health England's 290-strong tracking team on a larger scale.
Cautiously and progressively lifting the lockdown
As early as April, after the lockdown was first extended for three weeks, the government indicated five criteria that would have to be met before the end of lockdown could be considered:
- ensure the NHS has sufficient capacity for intensive care and specialist treatment;
- record a "sustained and consistent fall" in daily death rates;
- observe a decline in infection rates to "manageable levels", well below 1;
- have sufficient testing kits and PPE to "meet demand"; and
- be certain that easing restrictions will not cause a second peak of infection that would overwhelm the NHS.
When the British Prime Minister outlined his lockdown exit plan on May 10, the timetable was presented on the basis of an alert system ranging from 1 to 5, defined by the above criteria, in particular the infection rate, and operated by a new Joint Biosecurity Centre. In mid-May, the country switched from level four to level three and people who could not work from home were encouraged to return to their workplaces. From June 1, gatherings of up to six people are tolerated, nationwide travel is authorized, and some shops and schools reopen their doors. As of June 15, all non-essential businesses and the vast majority of schools will once again be able to host their customers and students. Provided that the infection rate and the number of recorded cases allow it, the country could also allow the reopening of certain public places and part of its tourism-related activities could resume from July 3 at the earliest.
While the United Kingdom appeared to be in a good position to deal with a national epidemic when the first case was detected at the end of January, the delay incurred by the government during February and early March in providing the necessary equipment, ventilators and testing kit, as well as in the implementation of restrictive measures to limit the spread of the virus, left the country in a poor position to control the accelerating death toll.
Following initial difficulties relating to the government’s lenient approach to the crisis, which has left the country among the most affected by the virus, all indicators now seem to be moving in the right direction, and the United Kingdom is moving cautiously but swiftly towards the end of its lockdown. However, while the government is making up for its late preparations, it has now lost the trust of the British people. By maintaining full support for Dominic Cummings after he broke lockdown rules, the Johnson government is compounding the existing economic, health and social risks with the risk of a political crisis.
Copyright: ISABEL INFANTES / AFP