Cabinet minister Michael Gove has admitted the UK needs to go “further and faster” on testing NHS staff for coronavirus, amid a growing backlash over the failure to meet the target of 10,000 tests a day.
Mr Gove revealed that just 8,240 people were tested on Monday – days after he incorrectly claimed that the 10,000 milestone had been met by the target of the end of last week. The UK still lags well behind countries like Germany, where 70,000 are being tested every day.
In an apparent sign of frustration at the failure to use the UK’s full capacity, which now stands at 12,700 a day, ministers and Public Health England have ordered NHS trusts to ensure that any tests not needed for patients should be used on staff.
It came as Downing Street confirmed that the next goal of 25,000 tests a day will not be achieved until mid-to-late April – a slippage from the initial target of under four weeks from when the ambition was first announced on 18 March.
No 10 acknowledged that efforts to ramp up numbers have been hampered by difficulties obtaining the necessary chemical reagents and swabs from manufacturers. And it emerged that the NHS in England and Wales had been competing for the same manufacturer’s products, forcing ministers to step in and insist on a centrally co-ordinated system between the four nations of the UK.
As the number of deaths from coronavirus hit its highest daily total yet, with 393 dying across the UK on Monday, Boris Johnson told the first ever virtual Cabinet meeting that “the situation is going to get worse before it gets better – but it will get better”.
NHS England medical director Stephen Powis told a 10 Downing Street press conference that new data indicated that the lockdown measures imposed by Mr Johnson eight days ago were producing “green shoots” in slowing the rate of infection.
But he warned: “We must not be complacent ... We are not out of the woods. We need to keep our foot on the pedal.” And he stressed that the death rate was likely to rise for some time after numbers of infections decline, because of the way the disease works through the population.
Mr Gove said: “There are some signs, as a result of people observing social distancing, that we may be able to flatten the spread of infection. But now is absolutely not the time for people to imagine that there can be any relaxation or slackening ... People’s efforts, people’s sacrifices, are worth it. They are making a difference. But we must not let up.”
Former World Health Organisation director Anthony Costello said it would be “perfectly feasible” to reach German levels of testing if the UK’s 44 molecular virology labs were dedicated to the task.
And he said that stepping up the pace of testing might allow the current lockdown to be lifted in as little as six weeks’ time.
“We must go to mass testing and, when we remove the lockdown, I don’t think it will take six months. All the Asian states – it was six to eight weeks to being able to lift the lockdown,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for an immediate expansion of testing.
In a letter to the prime minister, Mr Corbyn wrote: “I have seen reports that up to a quarter of NHS staff are having to self-isolate. They must be urgently tested so that those who do not have the virus can return to work. The lack of testing and tracing for social care workers is risking their health and that of those they care for, who are the most vulnerable to the virus.”
But deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries rejected pressure to switch to widespread testing in the community, saying: “We want to be testing where it is useful, otherwise it’s a wasted effort. At the moment, if you were a member of the public and you tested positive, you would not be taking any different action than we are asking you to do anyway, and ... we would be using capacity we could be using in the health service.”
Professor Powis said it was “absolutely crucial” for health staff to be tested, so that those who are shown not to have the illness can return to work. Around a quarter of doctors and one in five nurses are believed to be off sick or self-isolating.
All NHS trusts were contacted on Sunday for lists of staff who should be given priority for antigen tests, which show whether individuals have the Covid-19 infection or a similar but innocuous flu-like illness. This will allow them to speed up the process of getting key individuals back onto the wards as quickly as possible, he said.
Mr Gove told this afternoon’s press conference: “More NHS staff are returning to the frontline, and more testing is taking place to help those self-isolating come back and to protect those working so hard in our hospitals and in social care.
“But while the rate of testing is increasing, we must go further, faster.”
“A critical constraint on the ability to rapidly increase testing capacity is the availability of the chemical reagents which are necessary in the testing. The prime minister and the health secretary are working with companies worldwide to ensure that we get the materials we need to increase tests of all kinds.”
Mr Gove said the sharp rise in deaths from coronavirus was “deeply shocking” but declined to predict when the tide would turn – unlike Mr Johnson, who last week suggested it would happen in around 12 weeks’ time.
“There’s not a fixed date like Easter when you know that the peak will come, it depends on the actions of all of us,” said Mr Gove. “We can delay that peak, we can flatten the curve through our own particular actions.”
Mr Gove and health secretary Matt Hancock both claimed at the weekend that daily testing had passed 10,000, when in fact it peaked at 9,114 on Friday before falling back the following day. The latest figures show that the total tested in hospitals over the course of the outbreak stands at 143,156, of whom 25,150 have tested positive and 1,780 have died.
Mr Johnson’s spokesperson made clear that ministers believe the shortfall resulted from hospitals failing to use testing facilities to their full to check staff as well as patients.
“Where there is any spare capacity for testing, NHS trusts have been told that this must be used for NHS staff,” said the spokesperson.
I’ve written to the Prime Minister with a plan for immediate action to improve the safety of our NHS and care workers – with full PPE and testing, for the protection of themselves and the public. pic.twitter.com/tFauLNGFXu— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn)March 31, 2020
Asked if Mr Johnson was frustrated with the slow pace of testing, the prime minister’s spokesperson said: “It’s absolutely an important issue and the prime minister and ministers want as much progress to be made on this as possible.”
He pointed to the assessment of Public Health England medical director Yvonne Doyle, who said on Monday that the target of 25,000 tests a day was not likely to be met until mid-to-late April.
Dr Harries cautioned against direct comparisons between the UK’s record and those of countries like Germany and South Korea, where intensive testing in the community appears to have been linked to lower death rates.
South Korea had been dealing with very significant outbreaks concentrated in just two locations, while Germany’s testing regime had been “skewed” towards younger people, who were less likely to become seriously ill, she said.
“We will not be able to answer this question, to be honest, until right at the end of the outbreak,” she said. “If we look back in a year’s time, we will be able to compare who we tested, what the demographic of the population was, how many people of what age, the different geographies and the different testing principles, but it is not possible to do that at the moment.”
The prime minister’s spokesperson played down the prospect of a swift move to wide-scale antibody testing, which shows whether someone has had the disease and recovered.
Although ministers have purchased millions of antibody tests, the spokesperson said: “The first thing to do is to ensure that we have a test which works. The prime minister, the chief medical officer and the chief scientific officer have all been clear that once this test is established, it can be a game changer and we would want it to be used as widely as possible.”