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COVID-19: Top scientist says ministers should have improved PCR testing system rather than ‘abandoning it entirely’

Written by on 19 September 2021

A top scientist who advises the government says ministers should have improved the COVID testing system for international travel rather than “abandoning it entirely”.

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, which feeds into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said the removal of the need for a PCR COVID test will impact on the UK’s ability to spot dangerous infections coming into the UK.

On Friday, the government announced that from 4 October, the current traffic light system of red, amber and green countries will be scrapped and replaced with one red list only, and from the end of October, people will be able to replace their day-two PCR test with a cheaper lateral flow test.

COVID-19, travel and test concept, tube for PCR testing and tourist passport on geographic map. Coronavirus diagnostics in airport due to pandemic. Tourism and business hit by SARS-Cov-2 corona virus Image: Passengers will have to take PCR tests until the end of October

Prof Reicher told Sky News’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme that instead of improving a “dysfunctional” system of travel restrictions, the government had decided to abandon it.

He said: “We had a dysfunctional system – because of all the mess around getting PCR tests, all the different companies charging absurd rates and not providing us with a good service and so on – and they’ve responded, not by improving the system but by abandoning it entirely… that’s a pity.

“I do think we need PCR tests, because everybody always said that lateral flow tests were never what were called greenlight tests – tests to say you’re safe and therefore you can act as if you don’t have the virus.

“What they do is they pick up asymptomatic cases and are very, very valuable in that regard. But I think it would have been far preferable to keep PCR tests but to improve the system and to do them through the NHS.

“I think it (the relaxation) is increasing risk. I think it does limit, in fact it stops our ability to trace different variants and increases the probability of infected people coming into the country.

“I think it has increased the risk, quite frankly, and I think we should have improved the system rather than by and large abandoning it.”

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Minister cautious over travel easing

He said what was needed, going forward, was to heed SAGE’s advice that “we are in real danger, we can’t be certain, but we are in danger of things running out of control” and rather than lockdown in the future, “do sensible things now”.

Asked how he could improve vaccine uptake, Prof Reicher said people should be offered paid leave so they can get jabbed.

“Bring vaccine stations into schools, into workplaces. Make sure people can have paid time off to get vaccinated. Bring the vaccine to the people,” he said.

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