The UK government is facing renewed calls to speed up testing of patients and health care workers for the coronavirus, as the outbreak spreads.
Ministers and officials were challenged on Monday to explain why they said 10,000 tests were being carried out every day but only 7,000 people had received them. The concerns over testing rates came after a week of lockdown measures, which officials suggested were starting to make a difference to slowing the spread of the virus.
“People will rightly say, why wasn’t this all in place?” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC radio on Tuesday when challenged on why the U.K. is lagging other countries on testing. “The unprecedented nature, the global nature of this, and the pressures everyone’s aware of on the NHS, means to scale this up it’s literally been a military-scale operation,” he said, adding that three new testing centers have just opened to boost capacity.
A week ago a national shut-down was ordered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who himself has contracted the illness and is in isolation. On Monday, the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said the restrictions were having an impact on reducing transport as well as cutting contact between members of the public in stores, bars and restaurants.
According to official figures released on Monday, more than 22,141 people in the U.K. had tested positive for the coronavirus, with 1,408 having died.
Vallance presented charts indicating a rapid drop in public transport and car use over the last two weeks. The current trends suggest efforts to limit the spread of infections may help keep the outbreak within the overall capacity of the National Health Service, he added.
While this does not mean every critical care unit in the country will escape being overwhelmed, there are about 1,000 new virus patients admitted to hospitals per day — and that number is relatively “stable,” he said. These admission rates are likely to start to fall in two or three weeks, Vallance told reporters in London.
Yet fears remain that NHS workers are not being tested for the virus, while many other members of the public may be isolating unnecessarily.
Virus testing levels in Germany, France and Italy far exceed the U.K. rate, despite promises from Johnson and his top team that efforts are being ramped up. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said last week that the U.K. could learn from other countries.
That led to criticism in the British press and among opposition lawmakers who question why the country is so far behind its neighbors. The opposition Labour Party’s health spokesman, Jonathan Ashworth, urged ministers to explain “why testing is still not being scaled up at sufficient levels and what bottlenecks domestically and globally are hindering this.”
As of Monday, almost 135,000 people had been tested nationwide. But Neil Ferguson, a professor at Imperial College London who advises the government on the outbreak, suggested as many as 2 million Britons may have been infected.
Widespread testing is the key to ending the social-distancing measures as soon as possible, according to Anthony Costello, director of the UCL Institute for Global Health and a former director at the World Health Organization. He told BBC radio on Tuesday the U.K. has the laboratory capacity to match Germany’s testing rate but is not currently utilizing it.
“Obviously we do need a national lockdown for now, but we want to get that lifted as soon as we can, and mass testing will be the way that we’re able to do that,” he said.
There’s also confusion about current testing levels. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove on Sunday said the U.K. had a day earlier hit its target of carrying out 10,000 tests in a day.
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But Health Department statistics showed about 9,100 tests had been carried out on about 7,000 individuals. An official said the discrepancy was because some people were tested twice, and that capacity exceeded the number of tests carried out.
“Many are asking why we are still not even hitting the 10,000 a day promised on March 11th,” Ashworth said. Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested the whole population should be given a home testing kit for the virus.
There are also inconsistencies on who gets tested: while a program of testing on front-line health staff only began at the weekend, Johnson was tested last week while only suffering mild symptoms, and was found to have the illness.
“The practicality of expanding the tests is not trivial or straight-forward,” Shapps said. “We are trying to ramp this up as fast as practicably possible.”
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