UK didn’t focus enough on airborne Covid transmission of Covid at pandemic start, adviser admits

Britain did not focus enough on airborne Covid transmission at the start of the pandemic, a Government adviser today admitted.

Professor Andrew Curran, the chief scientific adviser for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) — which issues the Government’s official workplace guidance — told MPs Covid recommendations may have overemphasised surface cleanliness rather than the need for proper ventilation.

Speaking to the Science and Technology Committee this morning, he said the guidance has shifted as experts learnt more about the virus.

Scientists initially feared Covid was spread via surfaces including door handles, post boxes and desks at the start of the crisis last year.

It lead to Government-issued guidance to businesses instructing them to spend thousands of pounds on cleaning products to wipe down PCs and door handles as employees returned to the workplace.

But research has since suggested the risk of transmission from touching the same surface is low and aerosol droplets are the main way the virus jumps between people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has not recorded a single case of Covid being spread via surfaces. 

And Professor Curran today said Britain should have focused more on stopping airborne transmission at work. 

He added that thousands of offices spot-checked by the HSE have been ignoring Government guidance despite more than 90 per cent of employers complying.

Britain did not focus enough on airborne Covid transmission at the start of the pandemic, according to Professor Andrew Curran, the chief scientific adviser for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) — which issues the Government’s official workplace guidance

UK’s multi-billion-pound mass testing for asymptomatic Covid could be halted in January, health chief hints 

Britain’s mass testing for schoolchildren could be halted after January, a Government scientific adviser today hinted. 

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, told MPs that it was ‘absolutely critical we keep children in school’, adding the biggest impact of the pandemic had been the psychological effect of being forced to stay home.

But Professor Lucy Chappell, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Health and Social Care, said the Government was committed to testing until at least January.

Speaking at the Commons Science and Technology Committee she said the policy was under consideration, with the multi-billion scheme being slammed for keeping healthy people out of classrooms and the workplace.

Professor Chappell said: ‘In the short term, I think we should be continuing with testing, particularly symptomatic individuals.

‘And I know that other groups are evaluating at what point we reconsider testing asymptomatic individuals beyond January, beyond spring.’

She added: ‘I would like to think that in five years’ time we won’t all be lateral flow testing.

‘There’s a stretchable point between those five years clearly.’

She continued: ‘Between now and January, it’s clear that we’ve committed to testing.

‘We are then reconsidering where we go beyond January, beyond spring.’

Professor Pollard told MPs: ‘Clearly, the large amount of testing in schools is very disruptive to the system, whether that is the individual child who is then isolating because they tested positive but they’re completely well, or because of the concerns that that raises more widely in the school – we’re aware of families taking their children out because someone’s tested positive in a school.

‘So I think there is a huge impact of widespread testing in schools.

‘I think probably we need to move in the pandemic, over this winter, maybe towards the end of the winter to a completely different system of clinically-driven testing.

‘In other words, testing people who are unwell rather than having regular testing of those people who are well, because that does drive a lot of these actions that happen, particularly in schools, if you have lots of asymptomatic testing.’

Professor Curran said: ‘I think we could have focused more on airborne transmission at the start definitely. And I think we have corrected that. 

‘There has been a big move towards identifying the need to improve ventilation, for example, to make sure spaces are appropriately managed from an occupancy perspective.’

He said the HSE has not been able to prove that Covid has ever been spread from touching surfaces in the workplace because it is ‘incredibly difficult’ to detect transmission in isolation from airborne spread.

But he said the agency’s swabbing of workplaces has shown virus DNA can survive on surfaces.

He said: ‘I don’t want to overemphasise the potential for surface transmission, but I also wouldn’t want to rule it out. 

‘Identifying mRNA on a surface is not evidence of transmission but we have been able to grow live virus from surfaces that have been swabbed from outside the hospital environment … using samples from homes for example, remote controls and telephones and that kind of thing.’

HSE still suggests employers invest in surface disinfectants to help clean workplaces despite the lack of evidence suggesting the virus can be transmitted from them.

Researchers say droplets containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus emitted when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks are the main way the disease is passed on.

A study in the 700,000-strong city of Boston, Massachusetts, suggested the chance of catching the virus from frequently touched surfaces such as ATMs, petrol pumps and pedestrian crossings is low.

Scientists swabbed hundreds of supermarket door handles, post boxes and bin lids between April and June last year, during the first wave. But they only detected Covid 29 times — or eight per cent of samples.

And even when the virus was identified it was in amounts so small the researchers said the risk of infection was ‘low’ — estimated to be as little as one in 2,000.

Despite evidence suggesting contaminated surfaces play a minimal role in transmission, experts say people should still sanitise their hands to stay safe. They argue the virus can still enter the body when infected hands touch the nose and mouth. 

Professor Curran also said HSE spot checks of more than 330,000 workplaces in Britain found thousands were not complying with the agency’s Covid guidance.

He said while ‘more than 90 per cent’ were following recommendations to improve ventilation, invest in hand sanitiser and encourage face mask-wearing in inclosed environments.

The agency now recommends workplaces improve ventilation by opening windows, doors and air vents where possible.

It offers guidance on how offices can identify poorly-ventilated areas by using carbon dioxide monitors. 

And it guides employers on how and when to use air conditioning units to improve poor ventilation.

But Professor Curran said around four per cent — 13,200— of the workplaces visited by the agency since October last year were not following all the rules.

He said:  ‘To check whether things were actually being done appropriately, HSE instituted a series of spot inspections and therefore we’ve had boots on the ground, we’ve had people calling companies, following that up with visits.

‘There has been something like 330,000 spot inspections [and] the vast majority — upwards of 90 per cent — of organisation that we have been up to … are doing things that meet the guidance.

‘That’s not to say everybody gets it right.’

Professor Curran today said Britain should have focused more on stopping airborne transmission at work [stock image]

Professor Curran today said Britain should have focused more on stopping airborne transmission at work [stock image]

Meanwhile, the man behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine today said Britain should focus less on case numbers alone when deciding policy as attention shifts to mounting infections over the winter months.

Sir Andrew Pollard, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said there was a need to look at hospital admissions and deaths more so than cases, adding that most intensive care cases were among the unvaccinated.

He said there were questions about booster doses and whether the vaccines are working against severe disease, but it remained the case that intensive care admissions could be cut by persuading the unvaccinated to take vaccines.

Professor Pollard said: ‘Now you could argue that all the other measures, and having more people boosted, mask-wearing and so on will also have an impact, of course it will do on those unvaccinated individuals, so if we want to protect intensive care there are measures to do that (such as restrictions)

‘But also, we could be vaccinating those individuals, focusing on that, which would protect intensive care.’

Sir Andrew said hospital admissions now were ‘quite a different story from last year’, with the vast majority of people now going in having shorter hospital stays and much milder disease.

Many of these people also have underlying health conditions ‘which are destabilised by having a relatively mild Covid infection’, he said.

Physicians see this every winter with other viruses, Sir Andrew said, adding ‘that people who are frail with various health conditions will be tipped over the edge as a result of those viral infections and Covid is doing that as well.’

He warned the NHS was ‘incredibly fragile’ but ‘that fragility is only contributed a small amount by Covid and so vaccinating is not going to suddenly make the NHS not be on its knees, where it is at the moment’.

The eminent scientist said the pandemic has had a major impact on waiting lists and while vaccines for the unvaccinated would make a big difference for intensive care, ‘this still doesn’t change the overall needle on where we are with a very stressed NHS’.

Sir Andrew said ensuring less transmission would cut intensive care admissions ‘but in the end the unvaccinated will meet the virus… it just might not be today, it might be next year’.

Don’t ‘bash’ Britain for having a bigger Covid outbreak than Europe because continent is lagging behind in testing, top Oxford expert 

It is unfair to ‘bash the UK’ over high numbers of Covid cases and compare it with the rest of Europe when the UK has such high levels of testing, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group has told MPs.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said there were reasons the UK was seeing a high number of confirmed cases, which have been averaging more than 40,000 a day for over a week.

He said it was true the UK had high case rates but this is ‘very much related to the amount of testing’, including in schools.

Sir Andrew told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: ‘If you look across Western Europe, we have about 10 times more tests done each day than some other countries, this is per head of population.

‘So we really have to always adjust by looking at the data… we do have a lot of transmission at the moment, but it’s not right to say that those rates are really telling us something that we can compare internationally.’

He suggested the UK Government should look to do what was right for the British people rather than comparing internationally.

‘A lot of our policy decisions should be very much focused on what we think is right for this country, not by saying other countries have much less (cases), because it’s very difficult to make those assessments,’ the professor said.

‘If you make the adjustment of cases in relation to the rates of testing, and look at test positivity, currently Germany has the highest test positivity rate in Europe.

‘So I think when we look at these data it’s really important not to sort of bash the UK with a very high case rate, because actually it’s partly related to very high testing.

‘I’m not trying to deny that there’s not plenty of transmission, because there is, but it’s the comparisons that are problematic.’

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