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Fact check: Stopping tests for COVID-19 would not prevent a lockdown, or make the disease disappear

A social media post shared over 3,000 times incorrectly claims that Britain is heading towards a second lockdown because too many people are getting tested, and that stopping tests for the disease would make the novel coronavirus disappear.

A sign is pictured as people queue outside a test centre, following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Southend-on-sea, Britain September 17, 2020. REUTERS/John Sibley

“Can people just stop getting tested? You do realise you are adding to the problem and taking us into a 2nd phase lockdown? YOU are giving the government the number of cases and the powers to take us into a winter lockdown? Just stop the testing and this will disappear overnight”, a section of the post reads (here) .

The suggestion that the virus will disappear if testing stops is false. Reuters has previously fact-checked claims that COVID-19 is not based on facts (here) .

In the initial stages of the outbreak in the UK, testing was limited to people exhibiting a narrow range of symptoms (here ). Even with a restricted level of testing, and a likely under-reporting of total case numbers, the impact caused by the virus became evident through rising hospital admissions and deaths.

Government figures show there were 11,896 tests processed in the UK on April 1, early in the national lockdown. That compares to the 227,465 tests that were processed on September 10 (here). The lower level of testing at the start of the pandemic did not prevent a lockdown from happening, nor did it make the disease disappear.

Testing also allows for the operation of contact-tracing programmes that help curb the spread of the disease. The UK’s ‘NHS Test and Trace’ scheme (here ) aims to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by notifying close contacts of people who have tested positive for the virus and telling them to self-isolate.

PERCENT POSITIVE

The post implies that the total number of tests, and reported cases, has a bearing on whether lockdown measures are introduced. However, the prevalence of disease is in a community is tracked by the “positivity rate” or “percent positive” of tests, not just the total number of tests conducted.

The percent positive - the percentage of all COVID-19 tests that are positive – varies according to how widespread the disease is, who is being tested and how the results are reported, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains tinyurl.com/y4lk6pl7 .

On Sept. 9, 2020, Britain's Chief Medical Officer Professor  Whitty referred to the percent positive rate when explaining the rationale behind new restrictions designed to slow the rate of the virus’s spread (here , timecode 16:32).

Explaining that the figures showed both a rise in recorded incidence in the population and a rise in the proportion of tests done which give a positive result, Whitty said: “That’s important, because that makes clear this is not just because of increased testing, but this is actually a real phenomenon”.

VERDICT

False. Lockdowns were enforced before widespread testing was available. The prevalence of COVID-19, which impacts lockdown measures, is judged not just by the total number of tests conducted, but also the percentage of those tests which yield a positive result.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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