Great Britain

Govt orders NHS to test more staff for coronavirus – but then say there’s not enough swabs

THE Government has ordered the NHS to test more staff for coronavirus - before admitting there are not enough swabs.

Just 2,000 frontline NHS England staff have been tested for coronavirus, Downing Street has said.

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Yet a senior health official has said that the UK has the capacity to test a many as 100,000 a day - but a "global swab shortage" is limiting that to 13,000.

NHS Providers boss Chris Hopson said that if existing NHS pathology labs "had unlimited swabs and reagent, there would be enough test machine capacity to process around 100,000 tests a day".

He added: "It's important to understand the constraints. Recognise view of chemical industry but trust leaders tell us major shortages of swabs and chemicals/reagents needed to complete tests.

"There is a global shortage. But everyone is doing everything they can to maximise supply."

Priorities

So far, the Government's approach has been on testing patients in hospitals to see if they have Covid-19 - while those with mild symptoms are asked to self-isolate at home.

Downing Street has also said that NHS staff would be prioritised so that workers can get back to the front line safe in the knowledge they aren't infectious.

To help ramp this up, NHS trusts were told earlier in the week they should use up to 15 per cent of any spare testing capacity for NHS staff.

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock has now scrapped that cap, telling NHS hospital labs to use all spare capacity to test their frontline workers.

And the Prime Minister's official spokesman today said that "clear instruction" has been sent to all NHS hospital trust to increase testing.

But Cabinet minister Michael Gove last night warned that a shortage of the chemical reagents needed for the tests was proving to be a "critical constraint" on the Government's ability to ramp up capacity.

Experts have based the Government for urging the NHS to carry out more testing, but then saying there aren't enough to meet demand.

Dr Al Edwards, School of Pharmacy, University of Reading, said: “It’s hard to square the government suggestion that centrally we are running out of chemicals, with the comment this morning from Matt Hancock that local hospitals can use spare lab space to test staff – how can they do this if there aren’t enough reagents to do tests centrally?”

Currently about 8,000 tests a day are being carried out a day, despite ministers having previously claimed to have met a target of 10,000 daily tests.

Around 1.2 million people work for NHS England in total - and up to 85 per cent are reportedly self-isolating over fears either they or a family member has Covid-19.

But early testing of 900 self-isolating NHS workers over the weekend suggests just one in six were actually infected.

It means around 20 per cent of the entire health workforce – around 240,000 people - could be cleared to return to hard-pressed hospitals if widespread checks were carried out.

Referring to early testing of health service staff, NHS Providers boss Chris Hopson, said: “Only around 15 per cent of those in 14-day isolation tested positive, so other 85 per cent could come back to work.
“If anything like right, a huge opportunity."

Testing capacity

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: "In terms of NHS frontline staff who have been tested overall, it's now over 2,000 and staff will be getting the results fed back to them over the next few days."

He later added: "We're very clear that we want more testing to be carried out, and that we are working with NHS England, Public Health England and others to ensure that happens."

Downing Street said the current coronavirus testing capacity stands at 12,750 - but only 8,630 tests were carried out on Monday.

The PM's spokesman said: "In terms of testing, as you know the NHS and Public Health England are working to increase the capacity.

"Current testing capacity stands at 12,750. On Monday March 30, 8,630 UK tests were carried out.

"A clear instruction has been sent to all NHS hospital trusts that where there is capacity available it should be used on testing frontline staff and we would hope to see that happening."

NHS staff testing

It comes as Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick admitted on Wednesday that just 900 NHS staff were tested over the weekend as staff testing is rolled out.

He told Radio 4's Today programme: "Clearly that's a low number but one we want to build on significantly.

"We now have capacity today to be testing 12,750 people and we expect that within a couple of days to be 15,000.

"So we should now have the growing capacity to test NHS staff in addition to the patients in critical care."

Mr Jenrick denied the Government and Public Health England (PHE) would only agree to centralised testing after claims from scientists and universities that their offers of help have been rejected.

He said the Government was willing to "work with any provider" who had the "right infrastructure and skills" and urged them to get in touch.

The minister also said he expects there to be 25,000 tests per day by the "middle of April".

Asked when the national coronavirus testing centre near Milton Keynes would be fully operational, Mr Jenrick replied: "I don't know precisely when that's going to be coming on board.

"Everything is being brought forward as quickly as it possibly can."

Kit delay

The promise of 25,000 tests per day by mid-April is in stark contrast to comments made by NHS medical director Professor Stephen Powis last Wednesday who said there would be "hundreds of thousands of tests" per day within the next few weeks.

Asked on LBC radio if the kit was in place, Prof Powis said: "We are getting the kit... you heard me correctly, we need to get to hundreds of thousands of tests a day, and we will do that over the course of the next few weeks."

Public Health England (PHE) has also come under fire over wider testing of members of the public with Covid-19.

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

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

On Tuesday, former World Health Organisation director Prof Anthony Costello said the UK has the capacity to test hundreds of thousands more people.

He said: "By mass testing, we can detect new outbreaks and there will be much less disruption rather than isolating the whole economy.

"We have 44 molecular virology labs in the UK. If they were doing 400 tests a day, we would be up to Germany levels of testing (around 70,000 a day) and that is perfectly feasible."

Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was "very worrying" that the Government was not pursuing a policy of mass testing.

The Chemical Industries Association acknowledged demand was "escalating" but said reagents were being manufactured and delivered to the NHS.

Shadow international trade minister Bill Esterson told the BBC: "I asked the chemical industry (on Tuesday) and they said to me their member companies aren't aware of any shortage."

It comes as 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab became the youngest victim of Covid-19 in England.

He died at King's College Hospital in London and his family said to their knowledge he did not have any underlying health conditions.

Dr Hilary Jones expresses a concern over a potential shortfall of lifesaving health equipment to fight the coronavirus virus

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