The government’s ambitious Operation Moonshot mass testing programme, which could cost up to £100bn and would not arrive until March, is a ‘distraction’ and a ‘PR stunt’ that will arrive too late and undermine the NHS, according to contributors to the Independent SAGE group.
Instead the group has reiterated its calls to invest in a proper track and trace system – the model they advocate is a find, test, trace, isolate and support scheme – integrated in the existing health system, and working with local communities.
In today’s weekly briefing open to the public, the group pointed out that the government’s record on track and trace was now even being criticised in Conservative quarters. It also argued that any track and trace system could only work if people were supported to isolate.
Christina Pagel, a mathematician at University College London (UCL), said: “Anything that isn't planned to work until next spring is too late. And 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 a hundred billion, you can do it for less than a billion. So if they want to spend money, why not spend it on actually supporting people to isolate?”
UCL professor of neuroscience Karl Friston argued that we were now on a “knife edge” and that the accumulation of the positive efforts of the public during lockdown, plus some acquired herd immunity, had the positive implication that even just a small nudge in the right direction will have impact.
He said: “We don't need to have a contact tracing system that is working at 100 per cent because we've got this knife-edge, very sensitive, very unstable situation. Just nudging the efficacy of the contact tracing towards a more effective performance will have a material effect in attenuating the secondary wave.”
But Friston also warned that there was a limited window of opportunity: “The one key parameter here that we have control over is contact tracing and it will work now. It won't work after the second wave, or the secondary wave, has ensued. It wouldn't have worked a few months ago, but it will work now if we invest resources into it.”
In the briefing contributors also said that the government needed to move away from the ‘blame game’ – a recent example being Matt Hancock’s response to reports that people are having difficult accessing COVID-19 testing. He hit back saying members of the public were to blame as they were needlessly applying for COVID-19 testing when they weren’t symptomatic.
Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, said: “The governments seem more intent on managing blame than managing the pandemic. To tell people off for getting tests is profoundly dangerous because the real problem is this, that when people are unsure, if you tell them, ‘oh, you mustn't get a test if you're not unwell’ they will delay.
“It will be longer before people get tests. They will be infectious for longer without doing anything about it, and the infection will spread more. So what Matt Hancock said is not only wrong, it is profoundly dangerous and it will increase the pandemic.”
Anthony Costello, professor of global health and sustainable development at UCL, said he thought the announcement was yet another distraction. He said saliva tests and better workplace testing were worth exploring, but that we needed to “follow a very careful approach to setting up again a proper working find test case isolate programme that is integrated into the NHS.
“My big fear about this is that the £100bn pounds being talked about, which is nearly three quarters of the NHS budget, would be a massive not only distraction but a threat to the whole of the NHS that we've come to cherish over the past 70 years. So I'm very worried about the politics of that.”