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Greater testing capacity earlier would have reduced deaths, minister admits

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps cautioned that life would not return to normal when the Prime Minister sets out an exit strategy this week.

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Soldiers from 4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment help to conduct tests at a drive-through testing centre at Royal Quays shopping outlet in North Shields, North Tyneside (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Soldiers from 4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment help to conduct tests at a drive-through testing centre at Royal Quays shopping outlet in North Shields, North Tyneside (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Soldiers from 4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment help to conduct tests at a drive-through testing centre at Royal Quays shopping outlet in North Shields, North Tyneside (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Fewer Britons would have died from coronavirus if more tests had been available earlier, a Cabinet minister has admitted, as he warned life would not return to “business as usual” when Boris Johnson sets out his exit strategy.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said “many things” could have been different if the UK’s testing capacity was above 100,000 before Covid-19 spread in the country. More than 28,000 people have now died after testing positive for the virus in the UK.

Mr Shapps also confirmed the NHSX contact tracing app – which he said would need 50%-60% of people to use for it to be successful – will be trialled on the Isle of Wight this week before being rolled out later this month.

The app will be central to the Government’s efforts in slowing the spread of coronavirus and will involve alerting people who have been in contact with an infected person and asking them to self-isolate.

In an interview with BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show, he was asked whether fewer people would have died if testing capacity had been greater sooner.

Mr Shapps replied: “Yes. If we had had 100,000 test capacity before this thing started and the knowledge that we now have retrospectively, I’m sure many things could be different.

“The fact of the matter is this is not a country that had – although we’re very big in pharmaceuticals as a country – we’re not a country that had very large test capacity.”

He also revealed that he was “actively looking at” quarantining people travelling to Britain from abroad to keep coronavirus infection rates under control.

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(PA Graphics)

(PA Graphics)

Press Association Images

(PA Graphics)

The Prime Minister has pledged to set out a “comprehensive plan” on how the current lockdown may be eased on Thursday, when the Government must legally review the measures.

Mr Shapps cautioned that life would not return to how it was in February, before the social distancing measures were introduced.

He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “I don’t think we should expect us to go from this situation that we have at the moment of social distancing back to where we were in February – that’s clearly not going to happen and I don’t think anyone imagines that for one moment.

“The most important thing is that the absolute focus of what the Prime Minister will be announcing later in the week is that what we do do going forward doesn’t undo the brilliant work people have been doing to get that R number below 1 – the all-critical reproduction rate doesn’t come back up because that’s when we’d see a second spike.

“So, no, I’m afraid it is definitely not going to be business as usual but we do want to make sure that people understand where the routemap lies.”

Meanwhile:

– A former Government chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, has assembled a group of experts to look at how the UK could work its way out of the lockdown in response to concerns over the “lack of transparency” coming from the Sage group of advisers.

– Conservative peer and former minister Baroness Ros Altmann said a requirement for older people to remain in lockdown longer as restrictions are lifted for the rest of the country would be “age discrimination”.

– Former head of the army General Lord Dannatt and ex-chief of the defence staff General Lord Richards backed calls for health workers to be given daily allowances like those given to soldiers in war zones.

– Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid-19, said all countries must remain “on alert” over the possibility of further transmission of coronavirus.

– Professor Sir Ian Diamond, UK national statistician, cautioned against international comparisons of death figures and warned that a “lengthy and deep recession” could lead to increased deaths.

It comes as Mr Johnson revealed that doctors prepared to announce his death as he battled coronavirus in hospital last month.

The Prime Minister spent three nights in intensive care at St Thomas’ in London with the disease, where he said medics gave him “litres and litres of oxygen”.

He described it as a “tough old moment”, telling the Sun On Sunday: “They had a strategy to deal with a ‘death of Stalin’-type scenario.

“I was not in particularly brilliant shape and I was aware there were contingency plans in place.

The bad moment came when it was 50-50 whether they were going to have to put a tube down my windpipeBoris Johnson

“The doctors had all sorts of arrangements for what to do if things went badly wrong.

“They gave me a face mask so I got litres and litres of oxygen. and for a long time I had that and the little nose jobbie.”

Mr Johnson, 55, said it was “hard to believe” his health had deteriorated in just a few days, saying he “couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting better”.

The PM told the paper the “indicators kept going in the wrong direction” and that he kept asking himself: “How am I going to get out of this?”

“The bad moment came when it was 50-50 whether they were going to have to put a tube down my windpipe.

“That was when it got a bit … they were starting to think about how to handle it presentationally.”

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Closed play area at St Nicholas’ Park, Warwick (Jacob King/PA)

Closed play area at St Nicholas’ Park, Warwick (Jacob King/PA)

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Closed play area at St Nicholas’ Park, Warwick (Jacob King/PA)

He said he was “in denial” initially about how serious his illness was and that doctors were right to “force” him to go to hospital.

After a fortnight convalescing from the virus, and just two days after he returned to work full-time, his fiancee Carrie Symonds gave birth to their son, Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson.

They named him after their grandfathers and two doctors – Dr Nick Price and Prof Nick Hart – who helped save Mr Johnson’s life.

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