The government of British prime minister Boris Johnson will study the experiences of Italy and China when they emerge from locking up the coronavirus, with ministers planning a time when national life and economic activity in the UK could start returning to normal.
A total of 5,373 people in the UK had died in hospital from the corona virus at 5 pm on Sunday, and officials were reluctant to speak publicly about the “exit strategy” of locking before the virus even peaked. Dominic Raab, the foreign minister, on Monday repeatedly refused to elaborate on the government’s exit strategy.
“The government’s top priority is to get past the peak,” he said, stressing that the first focus should be on reducing the number of new Covid-19 infections.
But work is underway to consider how a mix of testing and technology can enable gradual lifting of restrictions over the summer, with Italy and China seen as important testing grounds for new policies.
“They are a few weeks ahead of us on a curve, so we have an advantage in that,” said a government official. “We will look for a possible second wave of viruses, but if Italy and China can do it, it will help us find a way out of the lockdown.”
Both countries have carried out testing at the center of their plans to relax restrictions. But Britain’s exit strategy based on mass testing will require Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to fulfill his promise of at least 100,000 tests a day at the end of April, a number that includes both swab tests to determine whether someone has a coronavirus and an antibody blood test to find out if they previously had the disease.
So far, the NHS has only conducted 15,000 swab tests a day and no antibody tests have been found effective enough use.
Neil Ferguson, chief government adviser and epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said at the weekend that 50,000 swab tests per day might be needed to carry out a mass testing regime, possibly starting towards the end of May.
Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for the United Kingdom, on Monday added that testing would be an important part of any exit strategy but said that other factors could also play a role including “vaccines and drugs and when they might be available”.
Tony Blair, a former Labor prime minister, on Monday called for a senior minister to oversee the testing of the mass community. “Unless you can get mass testing, on a scale with speed, I don’t see how you get a way out of this lockdown – and I’m afraid of the economic damage that we do every week. The lockdown continues,” he told the BBC Today program.
In Italy, a pandemic of coronavirus seems to exist past the peak and officials began to talk about loosening the lock so that the virus remained under control in the future.
Roberto Speranza, the minister of health, told La Repubblica that a combination of more testing and an improved health system might allow easing locking gradually until the vaccine was developed.
He said testing and “contact tracing” would be extended, including by the use of smartphone applications and other forms of digital technology while a hospital network dedicated solely to treating Covid-19 patients would be established.
In China, locking has gradually diminished, although in some places restrictions have been reintroduced as signs of a second wave of infection appear.
In the UK, a number of government scientific advisers themselves are understood to be pushing for a mass community testing strategy.
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A senior public health expert warned that such a strategy would require the government to go beyond the promise of 100,000 tests per day, or introduce more cruel measures.
“As many as 100,000 tests a day will be very useful if they are highly targeted and are used along with other, simpler but less accurate steps such as temperature checks for people entering public buildings,” academics said. “It’s not difficult to do and they do it fairly quickly in places like China.
“But once again we are against this politics. For Boris Johnson, the idea of a military-style population surveillance measures maybe just a curse. “
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