“We’re already doing far more tests than South Korea”

That’s what the man leading the UK government’s coronavirus testing programme, Professor John Newton, told the BBC this week.

The east Asian nation has been lauded for its impressive record with “test, track and trace” – a policy many credit as one of the reasons it’s been able to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus infections. Meanwhile the UK government has faced criticism for not ramping up testing fast enough here.

Against this backdrop, it seems the government is keen to make the comparison. Earlier this week, Matt Hancock told reporters: “It’s important to note that we’ve already gone past the number of tests per day, for instance, that they carry out in South Korea.”

And on 18 April, the health secretary tweeted: “We’re working round the clock with ambitious goals for #coronavirus testing. Today we’ve hit a record number of tests carried out: 21,389 – exceeding any daily total in South Korea – a great step towards targets”.

But we think these claims need more context.

Is it about population?

It’s true that we are currently performing more tests per day in the UK than in South Korea. But as Dr Mike Skinner, a reader in virology at Imperial College tells FactCheck: “comparisons between countries are difficult”.

He says “as starting point, they need to be related to population size as well as the current case load”.

Paul Hunter, who is professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, agrees that population is important – and points out that the UK’s population is about 30 per cent larger than South Korea’s.

So on that basis alone, it might not be so surprising to find the UK performing more tests.

Nevertheless, Dr Skinner says that even when we account for this difference in population, we are still testing “a little more per million than South Korea”.

Different needs

But there’s a catch.

Professor Babak Javid, who is principal investigator at the Tsinghua University School of Medicine in Beijing, and a consultant in infectious diseases at Cambridge University Hospitals, told FactCheck: “the epidemic is largely under control in South Korea, so their need for testing is dramatically lower than ours”.

New daily cases in the country are in the single digits – compared to thousands each day in the UK, he says.

Professor Javid explains that one way to tell if we are getting enough tests to meet our national needs is by looking at the number of tests per confirmed case of coronavirus.

“If the number is low, it suggests that the number of cases being diagnosed is limited by testing capacity, whereas if the number is high, it suggests that testing capacity is not the major issue”, he says.

Professor Javid points out that the latest figure for the UK is much lower than South Korea’s (4.7 compared to 57.1, according to Oxford University’s Our World In Data project).

This suggests the UK has a much higher unmet demand for testing than South Korea.

As Professor Hunter says: “The question should be whether we are doing enough tests to meet public health needs or not. South Korea does seem to be able to do as many as it needs so why would it do more?”

Performance over the whole crisis

Dr Jeremy Rossman, an honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent, told FactCheck that it was “not a fair comparison” between the UK and South Korea.

Among other differences, he notes that “in South Korea, testing was widely used very early on and used in combination with a robust contact tracing program. With a strong tracing programme, and an outbreak that is well controlled (only four cases per day), there is not a need for large scale testing of the population.”

FactCheck verdict

Matt Hancock and the senior official in charge of the UK’s testing programme have both pointed out that the UK is now performing more coronavirus tests per day than South Korea – a country that has been hailed for its effective “test, track and trace” regime.

But the comparison is misleading without further context. Most importantly, South Korea has a much lower need for testing at this point in its outbreak. For example, for every 57 tests conducted in South Korea, just one turns out to be positive, compared to about 5 tests carried out for every positive in the UK. This suggests there is a higher unmet demand for coronavirus testing in the UK than there is in South Korea right now.

We should also remember that the two countries performed differently over the course of the outbreak. In South Korea, testing was used widely and early – which means the need for tests now is very different to the UK’s.

Experts say we should focus on meeting our public health needs rather than making comparisons with other countries in this way.