Many of the problems the UK faced early on in the coronavirus pandemic were due to a failure to speed up testing, England’s chief medical officer has said.
Professor Chris Whitty acknowledged “more emphasis” should have been placed on accelerating the capacity for COVID-19 testing in the initial stages of the UK’s outbreak.
The government was left “trying to see our way through the fog with more difficulty”, the expert added.
Prof Whitty made the admission at the daily Downing Street news conference after being asked what he regretted when reflecting on the government’s coronavirus response.
“I think there is a long list, actually, of things that we need to look at very seriously,” he replied, as he highlighted how other countries such as Germany were able to do more testing nearer the start of the pandemic.
“If I was to choose one, it would probably be looking at how we could… speed up testing very early on in the epidemic,” he said.
“Many of the problems that we had came because we were unable to actually work out exactly where we were and were trying to see our way through the fog with more difficulty.
“There are many good reasons why it was tricky but, I think if I was to play things again – and this is largely based on what some other countries were able to do, particularly Germany – I think that’s the one thing that we would probably have put more emphasis on at an earlier stage.
“There are many others but I’ll highlight that one.”
As of 9am on Wednesday, more than six million coronavirus tests had been conducted in the UK with more than 170,000 tests on Tuesday alone.
However, it wasn’t until the end of April that there was capacity to do 100,000 per day.
ANALYSIS: Is ‘Boris and the boffins’ becoming ‘Boris vs the boffins’?
By Jon Craig, chief political correspondent
Mr Johnson claimed the government’s five tests for further lockdown easing were continuing to be met.
But the “boffins” did not sound so confident.
“The R rate is below one, but perhaps only just below one,” said Sir Patrick.
And the prime minister must have winced at the candid answer Prof Whitty gave to Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby when she asked about regrets.
Professor Neil Ferguson’s public attack on the government on lockdown timing – and the candour now being shown by Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty standing alongside Mr Johnson inside Number 10 – suggest there is a rift opening up between the scientific community and the politicians.
And, long before any public inquiry into what went wrong, it also suggests that a blame game is already underway.
Prof Whitty also warned there was a “reasonable chance” that the virus would have certain “advantages” if there was a second wave of infections in the winter.
“It is something that transmits more easily indoors and therefore things that are working well in summer and autumn may cease to be working as well in winter,” he said.
“The nature of new epidemics is very often they come in waves circling around the world and if we get hit by another wave, at that point we need to understand better what is the optimal mix of things we could do.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson declined to answer when asked what he regretted about the government’s coronavirus response.
“Of course we are going to have to look back on all of this and learn lessons that we can,” he said.
“But, frankly, I think a lot of these questions are still premature.
“There are lots of things, lots of data, lots of things that we still don’t know, and this epidemic has a long way to go, alas.
“Not just in this country but around the world.”
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, admitted the government had made mistakes since the beginning of the outbreak.
“Will we have got everything right? No, for sure we wouldn’t,” he said.
“There’s things that we will have got wrong and we need to make sure we understand what they are, learn from them, and get them right next time.”