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Thursday, April 02, 2020

Government needs to get to grips with testing

The free pass that the UK Government have enjoyed to date in managing the COVID-19 crisis with little or no criticism, has dissipated today with even friendly papers like the Telegraph demanding answers as to why the promised testing for the virus has not materialised.

As the Guardian reports, the government have admitted that just 2,000 of half a million frontline NHS staff have been tested to date. This has led to a plea from scientists for Health officials to abandon strict production rules that are hampering the introduction of mass testing.

The paper says that their plea has come as the prime minister was forced to address mounting anger about the government’s failure to increase testing, just weeks after it had appeared to rule out such a strategy. They add that Ministers have been consistently flummoxed by questions on the issue:

The UK’s poor testing figures compared with other nations have caused a huge political backlash, with critics asking why the government is both failing to source the right equipment and refusing to agree to expand testing to the general population.

Only around 8,000 hospital patients and NHS staff are being tested daily – well short of the government’s targets and far below the 70,000 a day achieved in Germany. In total, just 2,000 NHS workers – or 0.4% of those being exposed to the virus – have been tested so far, meaning thousands in isolation cannot get back to work.

Ministers have struggled for four days in a row at No 10’s daily press conference to explain why testing is so slow. In an attempt to solve another logistical barrier, NHS England also directed all trusts to lift the 15% cap on staff testing and use all their spare testing capacity to help solve the problem.

But Prof Nicola Stonehouse, a molecular virologist at Leeds University, said that efforts to scale up testing were being frustrated by over-reliance on specified reagents, enzymes and other chemicals. “It is holding things up,” she said. “If we could get over this, we could get the testing centres up and running so much faster, and that’s got to be a good thing.

“The NHS have very specific requirements and there is good reason for that. It makes sure that standards are maintained. But there are alternatives. They need to be optimised and validated, but you can fast-track that if you have enough people. It wouldn’t take a lot of time.”

Meanwhile, questions are being asked in Wales as to why the Welsh Government has been unable to secure testing on a larger scale with Pharmaceutical giant Roche flatly refuting a claim by Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford in the Senedd that it had struck a deal to supply Wales with Covid-19 tests.

Assembly Members had been told that starting today six thousand tests would be conducted each day. But because the deal fell through, only 1,100 tests will now be done a day – a loss of 5,000 tests.

If we are going to get to grips with this pandemic then this is an issue that all governments are going to have to get to grips with quickly.
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