During a session of the Commons Liaison Committee on the Government’s handling of coronavirus pandemic, MPs heard from Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A summary of the relevant sections discussing public health and testing are below. The Prime Minister refused to give a firm date for meeting a 24 hour turnaround target for tests, and blamed delays on operational issues in labs with processing the tests quickly enough.
Summary- Public health messaging
Conservative Welsh Affairs Committee Chair Stephen Crabb asked if the Government wished to see a four-nation approach maintained in responding to COVID-19.
In reply, the Prime Minister said there was a great deal of collaboration between the four nations and only slight differences in the approach of each government based on the differing R Number levels.
Mr Crabb asked if the Scottish and Welsh governments had instilled caution in the UK Government’s decision on the pace of lockdown relaxations on 10 May.
The Government had opted for a cautious approach on that date, Mr Johnson said, adding that people in England had been able to travel or exercise more.
Conservative Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Chair Simon Hoare asked if the UK Government would ensure that it worked closely with the Irish Government on relaxing lockdown.
Responding, Mr Johnson said he had a good working relationship with the Irish Government and was committed to maintaining the Common Travel Area.
Exceptional problems with childcare allowed flexibility under the rules, Mr Johnson said, announcing that a new test and trace regime would be available from tomorrow.
Pressed further, he reiterated that exceptional difficulties should be taken account of within the rules.
Scientific advice and NHS Test and Trace
Conservative Science and Technology Committee Chair Greg Clark asked if the Prime Minister received scientific advice.
In reply, Mr Johnson said he got a summary from Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty.
Dr Clark asked why the UK had a social distance of two metres when the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended one metre.
In reply, Mr Johnson said SAGE recommended two metres based of the reduced risk and confirmed his hope to bring the distance down as the risk of the virus abated.
He sought to defend the scientific advice given to the Government and noted SAGE had reviewed its advice on face coverings.
The Prime Minister said he had asked SAGE to review its advice on social distancing.
Asked about contact tracing by Dr Clark, Mr Johnson said the Government wanted people stay at home if they were told they had been in contact with COVID-19 and would consider financial sanctions or fines if they did not comply.
He explained that anyone contacted by an NHS tracer would need to stay home for 14 days.
Mr Johnson said anyone who was asymptomatic would still need to stay at home for that period even if they were not displaying symptoms. It would only impact a small section of the population, but other countries had used that technique had used it to release lockdown.
Conservative Health Committee Chair Jeremy Hunt asked why the Government had struggled to meet its 100,000 tests a day target when the risks of COIVD-19 had been known about since January.
A test, track and trace regime had begun early but there had been a lack of capacity, staff and resources in Public Health England (PHE), Mr Johnson said. He added that the UK had not learn the lessons from previous coronavirus pandemics, MERS and SARS.
Mr Hunt asked if the Prime Minister had received any warnings that discharging elderly patients into care homes would increase the risk in the latter setting.
The number of discharges from the NHS into care homes had fallen by 40% between January and March, Mr Johnson said.
Mr Hunt asked why it took test results 48 hours to come back when other countries could do it in 24 hours.
The UK was now testing more people that any other country in Europe with 40,000 people working under Baroness Dido Harding to bring the delay down, the Prime Minister said. He added that the chunk of the tests turned around within 24 hours was growing.
Mr Hunt asked if the Prime Minister would declare a public health emergency and set a 24-hour turnaround target.
In reply, Mr Johnson said that was the target and it would be hit as soon as possible.
Mr Hunt asked if agency workers would be banned from moving from care home to care home.
Responding, Mr Johnson said that practice had been stopped and noted that the numbers of outbreaks and deaths in care homes had fallen.
The Chair asked what was responsible for delays to testing.
Delays were caused by problems with labs failing on an operational level to get the results back fast enough, the Prime Minister said.
Labour HCLG Committee Chair Clive Betts asked why the Government had not involved public health directors in designing the test, track and trace regime.
In reply, Mr Johnson said the Government was using local experts to develop the regime.