Great Britain

Coronavirus testing crisis is our Dunkirk… time is running out, expert tells Govt


THE Government needs to muster its "Dunkirk spirit" to tackle the coronavirus testing crisis, a leading expert has urged.

Sir Paul Nurse, head of the Francis Crick Institute, called on the Prime Minister to let "small ship" labs start screening for Covid-19 - before time runs out.

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He said their research laboratory had been repurposed so it could carry out coronavirus tests at a rate of 500 a day by next week - rising to 2,000 a day in future.

Sir Paul said their tests can be turned around in fewer than 24 hours, which could help get NHS staff back on the front line.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "We hope that we can roll this out to other research institutes so that everybody can contribute."

'Little boats can be effective'

He added: "A metaphor here is Dunkirk - we are a lot of little boats and the little boats can be effective.

"The Government has put some bigger boats, destroyers in place.

"That's a bit more cumbersome to get working and we wish them all the luck to do that, but we little boats can contribute as well."

Sir Paul continued: "We are more agile, we don't have to rely on the commercially made ones, so that makes us somewhat more resilient - because we can move faster to deal with issues.

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"Of course, we have supply chain problems but we can reduce them by being small and agile.

"Getting it out there amongst more research institutes will make a contribution."

Asked why the Government hadn't asked them to assist sooner, he replied: "They were focusing on what only they could do which is the big ships if you like and we've just got on with it.

"We've got ourselves into a place where we will significantly contribute over the next week or two.

"I think the Government will need to think more about its strategy, but we are running out of time.

"We weren't sufficiently prepared, I think that's clear, but now is the time to get our shoulder down on the wheel and do as much s we can to help everybody in this country.

"We can turn our tests around in less than 24 hours, which means we can get NHS staff - not only better protected - but in the front line much more rapidly so they're not out of the way, not being able to treat patients."

It comes as the Government appears to be finally changing its approach over testing following weeks of insisting all screening should be carried out centrally.

The measures followed by the UK were intended to make sure checks are properly conducted.

But they contrast dramatically by the decentralised approach successfully deployed in countries like Germany where 70,000 people are tested every day - compared to about 8,000 in Britain.

The Government have blamed the lack of testing on a shortage of testing materials used to properly make up kits.

Kit shortage

But today the chief executive of the Health Service Executive, Paul Reid, said officials are "working hard" to resolve the issue.

He appealed to the public to "bear with us" as the HSE tries to address the "worldwide issue" - as it emerged that just 2,000 NHS staff have been tested for Covid-19.

Meanwhile, Prof Paul Cosford, for Public Health England, said "everybody involved is frustrated" about not reaching the required testing output.

Our role has always been to make sure our labs are doing what they need to do and we're rolling tests out to the NHS for clinical treatment of patients

Prof Paul CosfordPublic Health England

He also told the Today programme: "Our role has always been to - and I speak from Public Health England (PHE) - make sure our labs are doing what they need to do and we're rolling tests out to the NHS for clinical treatment of patients.

"There is some capacity that is available within that in order to start testing NHS staff and that's being done.

"You've heard about the 2,000 yesterday - nowhere near where we need to get to but it's a good start - and then there's the drive-through systems that are beginning."

He added PHE got the test in place, adding: "We've played our part, which is to make absolutely certain that that test is spread throughout Public Health England's laboratories, throughout NHS laboratories, is available to support the clinical treatment of patients who need it."

Asked why other testing facilities were not being used, Prof Cosford said PHE is most closely involved in NHS testing before adding: "The second (strand) is how we can use all of those laboratories, all of that capacity, to boost up at least 100,000 tests a day, hopefully more."

Prof Cosford said he would expect this work to be in place "over the coming days and a small number of weeks".

When asked if the UK was on course for 1,000 deaths a day by the weekend, he told Today: "My expectation - and I think the expectation of those looking at this most closely - is that we will continue to see an increase in the numbers of people being infected and admitted to hospital over the next two to three weeks, but we should hit a plateau if all the social distancing measures are working in about two to three weeks' time."

Treatment withdrawn

It comes as new guidance for doctors warned that coronavirus patients could have their treatment withdrawn and offered to others who are more likely to survive.

The British Medical Association's (BMA) latest ethics advice said health professionals could be forced to make "grave decisions" should hospitals become overwhelmed with patients.

The document warns that decisions around rationing scarce resources, such as ventilators, could determine whether large numbers of patients will receive life-saving treatment or not.

Meanwhile, Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England (PHE), told a Number 10 daily press briefing that 10,000 coronavirus tests per day were now being carried out and the aim was to get to 25,000 tests by mid-April.

She said the intention was to "get from thousands to hundreds of thousands" of tests for frontline workers in the coming weeks.

PHE has come under fire over wider testing of members of the public with Covid-19.

It has said repeatedly that most adults who develop symptoms will fully recover and do not need to be tested.

However, many scientists disagree and say it is only through widespread community testing that the UK will be able to track the virus and emerge from lockdown.

Coronavirus testing: What is the difference between antigen and antibody tests?

Coronavirus tests are key to getting a clearer idea of the scale of the outbreak in the UK and grasp a handle on it.

In recent days, there's been a lot of talk about the two different types of tests that the government are ramping up.

The government refers to them as the 'have you got it' antigen test or the 'have you had it' antibody test.

Here we explain the difference between the two...

What is an antigen test?

Antigens are found on the surface of invading pathogens, including coronavirus.

Testing for antigens can determine whether someone is currently carrying the virus and are actively infectious.

The NHS is currently using antigen tests in hospitals to determine if someone is currently infected with Covid-19.

Samples are taken using a swab - which resemble a large cotton bud - from deep inside the nose and throat before being sent off to a lab for testing.

Most labs use a method called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which takes several hours to get a result.

It can take days for labs to run the tests and tell people their result.

Several companies are working on ways to fast track this type of testing.

What is an antibody test?

When a person gets infected with antigen, the body starts making specially designed proteins called antibodies in response - as a way to fight the infection.

After they recover, those antibodies float in the blood for months, maybe even years.

That's the body's way of defending itself in case it becomes infected with the virus again.

So an antibody test specifically looks for antibodies which will be able to tell whether you've already been exposed to Covid-19.

Anyone who has already had the illness is presumed to be immune to getting it again - at least, in the intermediate term.

This would allow them to go back to work safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to become infected again or pass the virus on.

The check that has been developed for Covid-19 is a finger-prick blood test, with the samples sent to laboratories and results available within a few days.

Dr Hilary Jones, a GP and resident doctor on Good Morning Britain, explained that it works "almost like a pregnancy test, except you need a drop of blood".

These tests are being developed by several different firms and Public Health England (PHE) is also working on its own test.

They still need to be validated to ensure they give accurate results.

Prof Doyle told reporters there was an intention to scale up this sort of testing.

She said: "In terms of mass testing, the testing strategy is to increase the amount of testing done not just in healthcare workers but in the population.

"The rate-limiting step there is not us, it is really whether the tests are valid and then to get that out and about, and aided by technology."

Until now, the focus has been on testing patients in hospital to see if they have coronavirus, with NHS trusts told earlier in the week they should use up to 15% of any spare testing capacity for NHS staff.

On Wednesday, the UK experienced its biggest day-on-day rise in deaths so far, with 2,352 coronavirus patients dying in hospital - up by 563 from 1,789 the day before.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video posted on Twitter that it was a "sad, sad day" and that his "thoughts go out to the families of the victims".

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