The chief scientific advisor to the UK government has admitted the outcome of the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak “has not been good”.
Giving evidence to a committee of MPs, Sir Patrick Vallance was asked why the UK’s response has not been admired around the world.
He responded: “It is difficult to know where we stand at the moment. It is clear the outcome has not been good in the UK.”
The UK currently has the highest officially recorded number of fatalities in Europe, with 45,138 – the world’s third-highest death toll. This is despite neighbouring countries enforcing lockdowns and other preventative measures days or even weeks before the UK followed suit.
Vallance explained that the role of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – which he chairs – is not to make decisions but to provide advice. He said he was in no doubt that “those making decisions” had heard and understood the scientific advice.
“There will be decisions made that will have turned out not to have been the right decisions at the time, I’m sure about that,” he said.
Testing capacity ‘not sufficient’
He explained to the chair of the Science and Technology Committee – the former Business Secretary Greg Clark – that one lesson to take from the pandemic is the importance of collecting data and ensuring data flows to make decisions.
This means testing for coronavirus early on was important, something Vallance said was “a preoccupation right at the beginning” for SAGE.
“We kept saying we need to get more testing capacity in place,” he said. “It would have been absolutely preferable to have had much greater testing capacity early on.”
He referred to notes from early February when he said SAGE advised the UK government of the need to increase testing capacity, which at the time was “not sufficient or sustainable at the limits of controlling higher rates of incursions”. There was a recommendation of a “ten-fold increase in capacities” according to the minutes he was reading from.
“There was clearly an under-capacity issue that’s well recognised. And that’s what’s happening now with the ramp-up of test and trace,” he told the committee.
Vallance told the committee he thinks it is quite probable the virus will come back “in different waves, over a number of years”, as he explained there are strong hints that it is a seasonal virus.
“There’s a very high likelihood that come winter we will see an increase in cases. You could argue that’s the tail end of the first wave coming back,” he explained.
On the current understanding of immunity, he warned scientists don’t yet know enough.
“We don’t know to what extent a positive antibody means you are protected against the virus or protected against the carriage of the virus,” he said.
Masks have a ‘positive effect’
The UK government has only just announced compulsory wearing of masks in shops – however this doesn’t come into effect until 24 July.
Vallance said the SAGE advise was there to see in the public domain, and it said it would advise use of facemasks when they can be “of value”.
They wouldn’t be of much value during a lockdown, he explained, but said in April SAGE had advised: “On balance masks have a positive effect in terms of stopping other people from catching it from you… and therefore in certain environments there’s a role to wear it”.