Ministers were on Wednesday night unable to answer basic questions about when Britain’s testing regime for coronavirus is to be increased dramatically in scale to allow the country to plan its exit from lockdown.
After days of mounting concerns over the growing testing crisis, it is still unclear when NHS workers are to be tested, when mass testing for the population is to be rolled out or even whether the Government has a plan to end the nation’s quarantine.
By Laura Donnelly, Health Editor www.telegraph.co.uk
Wednesday’s death toll from the virus was 563, overtaking France’s highest daily figures and bringing the total number of deaths in the UK to 2,352.
Asked repeatedly at the Downing Street press conference about why Britain lags behind other nations in testing, Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, said “increasing testing capacity is absolutely the Government’s top priority”, but failed to explain when the numbers would increase.
There is understood to be frustration within government over Public Health England, which is responsible for testing and is not thought to be rising to the challenge. Ministers are expected to bring in the private sector and universities in the coming days.
On Wednesday night Boris Johnson released a video online in which he promised to “ramp up tests”.
He said: “This is the way through. This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle”.
Health bosses on Wednesday night claimed that the country has the necessary laboratories to carry out 100,000 tests a day – eight times the current stated capacity – but does not have the swabs and reagents needed to detect the virus. Other countries are understood to have ordered the raw materials before the UK.
On Wednesday, just 10,000 tests were conducted, with NHS workers turned away from new testing sites in car parks. Mr Sharma was unable to say when the country would hit a target set by the Prime Minister last month for tests to be increased to 25,000 a day.
Germany, which is considered to be one of the best-prepared countries in tackling the crisis, is carrying out an estimated 500,000 tests per week and has a death toll of 793.
On Wednesday, the Army was deployed to help the NHS implement the rollout of tests to doctors and nurses, with hospital chief executives told they would be held “personally responsible” if any tests went unused. It followed warnings that some NHS trusts were only testing three workers a day.
In the wake of the press conference, Downing Street said on Wednesday night that Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, would on Thursday return to work from self-isolation with a five-point plan to tackle the testing issue to include increasing the number of labs able to check for the virus. However, details released on Wednesday night were still scant.
Former health secretaries and medical experts said the Government’s handling of the issue was “ridiculous”.
Jeremy Hunt said: “It is clear that the only way to avoid an Italian-style meltdown is to follow what has happened in Korea and Germany and that means mass testing in the community.”
Stephen Dorrell, the health secretary from 1995 to 1997, said: “It is ridiculous that there are NHS staff sitting at home feeling perfectly healthy and we can’t allow them to get back to work.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA council chairman, said: “It’s been well over two weeks since the Government said it was going to roll out priority testing for healthcare staff. Many doctors have still no idea about where or how they can get tested.”
Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior consultant in communicable disease control at the University of Exeter, said: “There is no good reason why we have fallen so far behind other countries. We should have kept the lid on this disease by bringing in mass testing. My concern is that it may now be too late.”
One scientist said the country could produce 10 million tests a day, if it ramped up resources in private laboratories and universities.
There were also fears on Wednesday night that the coronavirus lockdown was beginning to fray as Department for Transport figures showed that people were beginning to ignore advice and travel again. New benefit claims since the lockdown began have reached almost one million and there are growing warnings that people cannot afford to stay at home as the Government’s financial package is not sufficient.
The warning was sounded as the number of new positive cases on Wednesday passed 4,000 for the first time, with close to 30,000 cases in total. On Wednesday NHS Digital also said more than 1.7 million NHS assessments in just 15 days have concluded that people may have had Covid-19 or are currently suffering, based on their symptoms.
On Wednesday, just 10,412 tests were carried out in England, on 9,793 people.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “We still don’t have the clarity we need from ministers on how they plan to rapidly scale up testing to the levels needed.”
Mr Hancock is due to front the press conference on Thursday, where he will be under pressure to show the Government has got a grip on the fiasco.
His five-point plan proposes boosting testing capacity, paying private firms to conduct swab testing, rolling out antibody tests, conducting randomised sampling of the population and building up Britain’s long-term diagnostic capacity by working with pharmaceutical firms. However, he will be powerless to bring forward the stated ambition of testing 25,000 people per day, which may not be achieved until the end of this month, and antibody testing – described as a “game changer” by Mr Johnson – has still not begun because none of the nine different testing kits ordered by ministers has yet been approved for use.
NHS workers are supposedly being put at the front of the queue for tests but there is little evidence this is happening with even prisoners apparently having preferential access.
On Wednesday, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said latest figures suggest that as many 180,000 NHS staff were “self-isolating” but that around 85 per cent of these – 150,000 workers – could be cleared to return to work. He said: “Hospitals are desperate to get staff back to work as soon as possible.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman defended Britain’s slow testing rate by pointing to a global shortage of reagents needed to process tests.