Ministers' pledges to test 100,000 people a day for coronavirus by the end of the month are probably impossible to fulfil, NHS scientists warned last night.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s plan is in serious doubt because of a lack of vital testing equipment, including chemical reagents, test tubes and swabs.
The Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS), which represents around 17,000 NHS lab scientists and staff, has issued its first major statement on the crisis due to ‘frustration’ with shortages.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s plan is in serious doubt because of a lack of vital testing equipment, including chemical reagents, test tubes and swabs. He is pictured centre at the opening of NHS Nightingale Hospital in London
It said testing 25,000 people a day would be ‘dead easy’ with the staff and labs available.
But the failure of health officials to put in early orders to foreign firms for reagents and plastic kit mean 100,000 cannot be done without a ‘real push’ to boost supplies.
IBMS president Allan Wilson said labs were already unable to carry out testing, even at the current relatively low rate.
He added: ‘When politicians come up with targets like this, it’s hard not to sigh. I don’t think 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month is achievable, given the supply problems. It would take a real push.
The Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS), which represents around 17,000 NHS lab scientists and staff, has issued its first major statement on the crisis due to ‘frustration’ with shortages
‘There was initially no NHS strategy for testing, so we were on the back foot.
‘Officials didn’t seem to think testing was important at the beginning, so they did not do much.
‘By the time they recognised the issue, the supply chains were already taken up by other countries and companies which could have helped us were committed elsewhere.’
Mr Hancock pledged a tenfold rise in testing for coronavirus after admitting Britain had fallen behind on the ‘critical’ issue.
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Matt Hancock warned the virus continues its ‘grim march’ as yesterday’s death toll soared by a record 684 to a total of 3,605.
Asked if the crisis could peak around April 12, Mr Hancock said: ‘I’m not going to steer you away from that. That is one perfectly possible outcome. We’re prepared not only for that eventuality but also for if it’s worse than that.’
The number of deaths has more than trebled in a week.
Yesterday NHS data revealed half of patients who have died with the virus were aged over 80.
Of the 3,302 deaths in hospitals in England, 1,749 were 80 or above, 39 per cent were 60-70 and 7 per cent were 40-59.
A total of 29 were under 40, with three children and teenagers among them.
Germany is testing more than 70,000 people a day, while only 11,764 were carried out in England on Thursday.
Ministers have privately complained that Public Health England has resisted using private labs for testing, but the IBMS has now highlighted the supply crisis.
The major shortages identified by the IBMS are for reagents – chemicals that extract the genetic code of the virus from swabs so they can be tested – and the plastic tubes used to hold samples.
Mr Wilson said: ‘My concern is that if we do not solve these supply chain issues, we could end up in a position where hospitals will not be able to test all patients and will have to try to judge who has Covid-19 and treat them accordingly.
‘That could see patients with and without coronavirus being treated together, which would really raise the risk of infection.
‘If all patients are tested wherever possible, as is currently the case and we hope will continue to be, that might mean not all healthcare workers get tested.’
The testing equipment is also supplied by UK firms, which cannot cope with surging demand. Lab workers say there is no issue in having enough staff for tests, as they have recruited extra skilled staff and are running a 24-hour service.
At the moment, Britain is carrying out antigen tests, which establish whether people currently have coronavirus.
But the Government admitted yesterday it did not have a successful antibody test – which shows whether someone has already had the disease and therefore has immunity – further jeopardising the 100,000-a-day target.
The Government has ordered 17.5million of the ‘game-changing’ tests.
But it has emerged that many fail to work. Mr Hancock said: ‘We haven’t got a reliable home test. I’m not assuming any come on stream to hit the 100,000 target.’
Responding to criticism from the IBMS, Mr Hancock acknowledged it will be ‘challenging’ to get hold of vital equipment in time.
He added: ‘We’re absolutely determined to hit the new goal of 100,000 tests a day. Yes, that will involve some challenges. Everyone can see there are challenges around the world, but we are determined we are going to get there.’
He said 7,000 NHS staff have now been tested, and around 35,000 are currently off work.
Hospitals have started suspending life-saving organ transplants in a desperate attempt to free up beds.
Health bosses have warned that the high-risk operations could be scrapped entirely within days as the NHS prepares for a surge in Covid-19 cases.
A shortage of NHS workers and lack of critical care beds have already seen some hospitals suspend the procedures. Though partly-driven by a desire to protect patients’ health, it will leave many facing an increased risk of death.
The NHS Blood and Transplant group said: ‘A complete cessation of activity is not, now, universally supported by the clinical community but we also acknowledge that this time may only be days away.’