Independent Politics

Coronavirus: UK almost doubles number of tests as cases surge

Some 39,840 tests for coronavirus were carried out over the last week, almost doubling th total conducted since the start of the outbreak, Downing Street has said.

Yesterday saw 5,605 people tested, bringing the total number between 16 and 23 March to 39,840 and the total since the beginning of the outbreak to 83,945, said Boris Johnson‘s official spokesman.

But former health secretary Jeremy Hunt voiced concern over the rate of testing, calling for a move to widespread testing in the community of the kind seen in the successful suppression strategies in countries like South Korea.

Mr Hunt, now chair of the Commons Health Committee, told the House of Commons: “The concern is that we appear to be testing on a daily basis virtually no more people than over a week ago, when the commitment was to increase the daily amount of tests form 5,000 to 25,000.”

He asked health secretary Matt Hancock to “give us an estimated date when we will get back to routine Covid-19 testing in the community of all suspected cases”.

Mr Hunt said: “Even if that is three to four weeks away, a date means that there is a plan and without a date, people won’t be confident that there is a plan.”

Mr Hancock refused to give a target date for wider tests, but said the Department of Health was in the process of purchasing “millions” of tests for use “as quickly as possible”.

The figures emerged as it was confirmed that Downing Street emailed research institutes on Sunday afternoon to ask to borrow testing equipment needed to detect the Covid-19 virus.

The message, obtained by the Politico website, included a personal plea from prime minister Boris Johnson stating that No 10 was making the “urgent appeal” for expensive machines to carry out the tests “in the national interest”.

An unnamed source within the research sector told Politico: “It’s great that they are ramping up testing, but it should have been done weeks ago. This is costing lives every day.” 

But a government source said the message was the latest in a number of requests for help to the private sector and academia stretching back several weeks.

Staff at hospitals and care homes for the elderly across the country have expressed rising frustration about a lack of tests, which leave them unable to be sure whether to remain at work or stay home to avoid infecting colleagues. An online petition calling for the priority testing of frontline NHS staff has gathered 1.2m signatures.

The World Health Organisation has called on governments around the globe to “test, test, test” as widely as possible so infected people can be isolated and their contacts traced.

The UK has been doing up to 5,000 tests a day, but health officials said last week they hoped to bring this number up to 10,000 a day this week, to 25,000 within three weeks and then to 250,000 as new tests come on stream.

The email sent by a senior Downing Street aide to a number of research institutes around the UK reportedly said: “We urgently need to scale up testing. There is only a limited supply of these machines, so the PM is making an urgent appeal for you to lend us your machine(s) for the duration of the crisis.

“We will meet all expenses and assume all liabilities and requirements associated with the use of these machines for this purpose. We undertake to return or replace the equipment when the emergency is over. We would very much like to collect any machines you have tomorrow (Mon 23) or Tuesday.”

An attached letter from Mr Johnson said that “there are no machines available to buy,” and that the “urgent appeal” is therefore “in the national interest.”

He added: “If you have any staff who are experienced in using the machines … that would also be very helpful.”

The PM’s spokesman said: “It is no secret that we are rapidly scaling up our efforts to boost testing capacity to protect the vulnerable, support our NHS and save lives.

“Together with Public Health England and the NHS, we are exploring how we can work across industry and academic sectors to establish viable options which will significant ramp up the number of tests we can carry out.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth raised concerns over the PM’s apparent suggestion that there were “no machines available”.

Mr Ashworth told the House of Commons: “Many NHS staff will be asking why didn’t we procure machines and kits sooner?”

Mr Hancock refused to comment on the email, but told MPs he “did not recognise” claims that the government was finding it impossible to buy testing machines.

“It is true, absolutely, that we are bringing testing machines together to provide a more efficient testing system,” he told the House of Commons. 

“I am very grateful to the universities who have these testing machines and are putting them into the system. This is a national effort and they are playing their part, but we are also buying machines where we can.”



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