“The UK, I think I’m right in saying, other than China and Italy, is carrying out more tests than any other country in the world...”
Grant Shapps MP, Today programme, 16 March 2020
A reader asked us to check a claim about tests for Covid-19—the infection caused by the new coronavirus—made by the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.
Mr Shapps claimed that the UK is carrying out more tests than other countries, except for China and Italy.
This seems to be incorrect. There is limited data on how many tests are being carried out globally, but even with the data available, the UK did not rank third at the time Mr Shapps made this claim.
According to a compilation of testing statistics put together by Our World in Data (a project from the University of Oxford and Global Change Data Lab) from individual national reports, the UK was ranked fifth at the time of Mr Shapps’ claim. Of the 38 countries and regions compared on 13 March 2020, there had been higher numbers of Covid-19 tests administered in China, South Korea, Italy and Russia.
Importantly, both the number and rates of testing only included areas where official numbers of tests had been published, meaning many countries were not represented in that data.
Updated figures, from 17 March 2020, now include 64 countries and regions. In this dataset, the UK is the seventh highest for the number of Covid-19 tests administered. However, when population size is taken into account, the UK ranks 27th of the 63 countries and regions.
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How many people have been tested for Covid-19 so far?
Worldwide, as at 17 March 2020
Our World in Data notes that “there is no centralized database by the WHO on COVID-19 testing and many countries in the world currently do not publish official reports on tests performed”.
According to the data it has managed to collate, last updated on 17 March 2020, the UK had performed the seventh highest number of tests out of 64 areas tested (this includes a number of countries, and regions of China, Australia and Canada as well as two different testing projects in the USA).
The seven top ranking countries by test numbers, according to the 17 March dataset, were:
- Guangdong in China (320,000)
- South Korea (286,716)
- Italy (148,657)
- United Arab Emirates (125,000)
- Kuwait (120,000)
- Russia (116,061)
- UK (50,442)
The number of overall tests also doesn’t take into account the size of each country’s population. When the number of tests is presented per million people, the UK ranks 27th of 63 countries and regions, with 749.1 tests per million people. The highest ranking country is Kuwait with 27,888.3 tests performed per million people.
Importantly, these numbers do not include countries, such as Germany and Iran, who have not officially reported on their overall test numbers. The numbers also aren’t strictly comparable because although they were collated on 17 March they aren’t all showing testing figures as of 17 March, it just shows the most recent figure available from each area on that day.
More information about the source of this country-specific data is available here.
Worldwide, as at 13 March 2020
This was the version of this data available when Grant Shapps made his comments on the Today Programme. There were fewer countries included in the dataset at the time.
Of the compiled data at 13 March 2020, the UK had performed the fifth highest number of tests (29,764) out of 38 areas tested. The highest number of tests was reportedly in Guangdong in China (320,000) followed by South Korea (248,647), Italy (86,011) and Russia (76,963).
The UK ranked twelfth of 33 countries and regions when the population size was taken into account, with 450.8 tests per million people. The highest ranking country is Bahrain with 6,164.5 tests performed per million people.
The UK, as at 9am on 18 March 2020
The number of tests for Covid-19 conducted in the UK has risen by around 11% in the day since Our World in Data compiled the 17 March figures mentioned above.
Public Health England publishes daily statistics on the number of people tested in the UK. According to these statistics, as at 9am on 18 March 2020, 56,221 people had been tested. Of these people tested 4.7% (2,626) of cases were confirmed as positive.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) have urged countries to test every suspected case of Covid-19
The WHO have said that, despite the rapid increase in cases of Covid-19, they “have not seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing – which is the backbone of the response.”
They warn that “we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected” and have issued a message for all countries to “test every suspected case”. It adds “If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with up to 2 days before they developed symptoms, and test those people too” though only if they show symptoms.
Current UK government advice for diagnosing Covid-19 infection
The latest PHE guidance for testing for Covid-19 was published on 13 March 2020. This says that patients should be tested if they require admission to hospital with the expectation of staying at least one night, and have at least one of the following three symptoms: evidence of pneumonia; acute respiratory distress syndrome; or an influenza-like illness.
The government response and advice from PHE is being updated as circumstances around the Covid-19 outbreak change. During a press conference on 16 March 2020 Professor Chris Whitty said “we do intend to continue to scale up testing” and move tests “out into the wider community”. He said also that “the test we have at the moment only test for people who have currently got the disease”, but that a test to reliably say that somebody previously had Covid-19 “is being developed very rapidly by Public Health England”.
In parliament on 18 March 2020, Boris Johnson announced that the number of tests would be increased to 25,000 a day.
PHE warns that products being sold for diagnosing Covid-19 in community settings, for example pharmacies, are not advised because “there is little information on the accuracy of the tests”.