It has been a couple of weeks since the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK had passed the peak of the virus. Since, lockdown procedures have slowly begun to lift and life has begun to subtly change for UK residents. Many fear that the lockdown has been alleviated too early and the government has warned that lockdown will only continue to lift if five conditions are continually met. These being, that the NHS can cope with demand, there is a consistent fall in deaths, the infection rate stays below one, supplies of tests and PPE continually meet demand and finally the confidence that any adjustments will not risk a second peak of the virus. Yet, whether or not the supplies of tests are meeting demand, concerns have been raised as the UK is yet to roll out and execute an effective test, track and trace strategy.
According to the BBC ‘The NHS Confederation warned of “severe” consequences to staff and patients if the right system was not established quickly. It said lockdown measures should not be eased until a clear plan was in place.’ Boris Johnson, recently pledged to deliver a ‘world-beating’ tracing system from June, the same time that they have pencilled in the gradual re-opening of schools. Yet, many experts believe that slowly lifting lockdown procedures whilst there is a lack of an effective test and trace system, could risk a second peak of the virus.
At the beginning of the pandemic, an effective strategy was to test those suspected of coronavirus and if the person was infected, to begin contact tracing. Whereby, all of the people that the person has interacted with are alerted, monitored, advised to go into isolation and perhaps tested themselves. Some countries, such as the UK and the US struggled to implement this strategy as the pandemic began to overwhelm their nations and thus they failed to keep up with testing and contact tracing.
During March, the World Health Organisation began to urge countries to increase testing, contact tracing and isolation in order to better combat and get ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some countries were able to do this effectively such as South Korea, Germany, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Canada and have fared better as a result.
Many have noted South Korea’s approach to be an exemplary success story. They began testing before the World Health Organisation began urging countries to do so utilising digital surveillance and infrastructure to ‘quickly test an average of 12,000 people a day – and sometimes as many as 20,000 – at hundreds of drive-through and walk-in testing centres, free of charge. Results were sent to people’s phones within 24 hours, ‘ according to The Guardian. On the 30th of April, South Korea reported no new infections.
According to the New Scientist, ‘To reduce the spread of the virus, many researchers think countries need to move to testing those without any signs of disease instead of focusing on those with symptoms. “A good strategy would be to devote part of the resources for identifying asymptomatic infected too, starting with random testing in the population,” says Giulia Giordano at the University of Trento in Italy. People with mild symptoms can be isolated without wasting a test that could be instead used for identifying hidden outbreaks.’”
Yet, the UK has been unable to sufficiently test those who are suspected of having the virus. Throughout the pandemic, the UK government has been criticised for its lack available testing and insufficient testing capacity. In early March, the UK government decided to limit testing to hospitals, failed to sufficiently test frontline health workers causing an outcry. Since, the government has strived to increase testing, and made it available to all who have suspected coronavirus. However, despite promises of 100,000 tests a day and the seemingly continuous announcement of new strategies, it seems that the United Kingdom are scrambling to keep up.
Technology is expected to be a central part of the UK’s test, track and trace strategy. NHSX has been developing the UK’s own contact tracing app which will be rolled out by the government and work in tandem with manual contact tracing. Contact tracing apps have been developed by countries worldwide and implemented into their own testing strategies. Technology giants such as Apple and Google have also developed their own. The apps would use Bluetooth signals to detect the other smartphone users that a person has been in contact with, if someone falls ill with the virus, those contacts would be informed immediately. The benefit of using this technology, if it can be utilised effectively, is that contact tracing can be done instantaneously, and there is a better chance of staying ahead of the virus.
On Thursday, 21st May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that a new test that could provide results within 20 minutes is being trialled. The new swab test, would show whether somebody currently has the virus, does not need to be sent to a lab, the BBC reported. Additionally, the government promised to roll out 10 million antibody tests in the coming week. Antibody tests detect whether somebody has previously been infected with the virus.