Government is appealing for help from private industry to dramatically ramp up testing for coronavirus, as pressure mounted on Boris Johnson over the failure of official attempts to accelerate checks for frontline NHS staff.
As ministers faced a deluge of criticisms over figures showing just 2,000 of the estimated 125,000 self-isolating frontline medics have been tested for Covid-19, health secretary Matt Hancock held a virtual meeting with the pharmaceutical industry to ask for help in scaling up capacity. On his return to Westminster today after self-isolating for seven days with coronavirus symptoms, he is expected to set out a five-point plan to try to restore momentum to the government’s strategy.
The medical director of Public Health England, which has been accused of taking an overly bureaucratic approach to testing, insisted that the body had “played our part” in making sure tests were available for patients in hospitals. But Prof Paul Cosford said that the job of using outside laboratories to boost testing potentially to as much as 100,000 a day was for the separate Office for Life Sciences, which is the joint responsibility of Mr Hancock and business secretary Alok Sharma.
Meanwhile, a growing array of industrial and academic labs were coming forward to highlight opportunities to conduct tests outside PHE labs, in what one scientist as a repeat of the flotilla of “little boats” which saved the day at Dunkirk.
Ministers have been accused of snubbing offers of help from the wider scientific community while relying on PHE’s network of hospital labs.
Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, said its research laboratory had been repurposed to carry out 500 Covid-19 tests a day by next week, rising to 2,000 later, and believed other research centres could offer similar help.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “A metaphor here is Dunkirk – we are a lot of little boats and the little boats can be effective.
“The Government has put some big 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.”
Oxford University was reported to have 119 unused testing machines available, while the Animal and Plant Health Agency was said to have potential capacity for 40,000 tests a week and one medical research laboratory in Abingdon launched a drive for up to 1,000 small labs across the country to volunteer to test frontline healthcare workers.
In a video message issued late on Wednesday, the prime minister – who is himself self-isolating after developing symptoms – said that testing was “the way through” the crisis.
Admitting that the Government needs to “massively ramp up” testing so NHS staff who are self-isolating unnecessarily can return to work, Mr Johnson said: “This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end.”
Labour called for clarity on ministers on how they plan to increase antigen testing, which has remained below last week’s target of 10,000 a day despite lab capacity rising to 12,750, at a time when Germany is testing 500,000 people a week and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is urging all countries to “test, test, test”.
Shadow cabinet member Shami Chakrabarti said: “We’re asking the government to be transparent and to be clear… about what its plans are to deliver the kind of scale of testing that we need, both to get the NHS workforce tested but also to return as quickly as possible to community-based testing.
“Without widespread testing in the population, we don’t understand – having listened to experts – the way out of the lockdown.”
Labour’s health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth tweeted: “We need clear National Testing Strategy to beat the virus. Make full use of labs in HE (higher education), research institutions & industry & cut through any bureaucracy holding this back. Community testing & tracing is way out of lockdown cycles until vaccine found.”
Speaking after his video conference, Mr Hancock said: “I’ve called together our pharmaceutical giants and testing specialists to call on them to build a scale of diagnostic capability never before seen in this country.
“It is a huge task but they know they have the have the full support of this government as we work towards this common goal in the national interest, as part of our national effort to tackle coronavirus.
A Health Department spokesperson said Mr Hancock had asked for “solutions which could be scaled up immediately and at pace to deliver an immediate boost to capacity and delivery – as well as medium term solutions which would sustain and further grow this capacity over the course of the emergency response in the coming weeks and months”.
A five-point plan being launched today is expected to feature boosting testing capacity; paying private firms to conduct swab testing; rolling out antibody tests which show whether someone has had the illness and recovered; randomised sampling of the population; and building up Britain’s long-term diagnostic capacity by working with pharmaceutical firms.
Prof Cosford admitted that “everybody involved is frustrated” by the low number of tests being carried out.
He said he expected testing to hit 15,000 per day “imminently” and 25,000 by the middle of April, with five drive-through NHS staff testing hubs up and running and another four “to come on stream this week”.
One hospital had managed to get 100 workers back to work after testing staff, he said.
Work being led by the Office for Life Sciences “to look at a much broader set of universities, industry and other laboratories” will “give us another 100,000 or more tests per day”, Prof Cosford continued.
“We’ve certainly not refused any help from any laboratories and we’ve talked to many about what might be possible.
“It’s actually worse to have wrong tests than no tests at all. We need to be very careful to make sure that the tests we use are tests that work.”
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