Boris Johnson is facing mounting pressure to speed up the rollout of tests confirming a diagnosis of coronavirus among the public and frontline health workers as concerns intensify that a lack of diagnostics is impeding efforts to contain the epidemic.
The prime minister was repeatedly questioned at his daily media briefing on Wednesday but was unable to say why the UK appeared to be lagging behind other countries. The government is aiming to reach 25,000 tests a day — but not until late April.
Claiming the UK is ahead of some other EU countries, Mr Johnson said: “We are going up from 5,000 to 10,000 tests per day, to 25,000, hopefully very soon up to 250,000 per day”.
Doctors and nurses have complained about the lack of testing kits and personal protective equipment, which has exposed them and their patients to the virus. Among those able to secure a test was Prince Charles, who on Wednesday joined the growing number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK.
Jeremy Hunt, former Tory health secretary and now chair of the Commons health committee, urged the government to introduce weekly tests for medical workers. “Should we not introduce weekly tests for NHS staff so we can remove from them the fear they might be infecting their own patients?” he said.
Appearing at his last prime minister’s questions, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pressed Mr Johnson about why ministers had not earlier looked into acquiring more testing machines. “Why wasn’t this done weeks ago, if not months ago, when the government was first warned about the threat of a global pandemic?”
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, acknowledged shortages along many of the testing and drug supply chains, “essentially because every country in the world is simultaneously wanting this new thing.”
He also recognised that it was still not possible to test all NHS staff and key workers who are self-isolating for coronavirus.
“There is a global shortage but that is the next priority”, he said. “It’s not that there is no testing going on,” he said. “What we need, clearly, is to be able to scale it up.”
He added that the NHS would “probably” manage to cope with a surge in demand for critical care beds over the next two weeks, but he warned: “This is going to be a close run thing.”
The government is racing to ramp up its health response. The NHS is seeking thousands of extra staff among recent retirees and a military field hospital with 4,000 beds is being installed in east London.
Mr Johnson said that 405,000 people had responded to a government call for volunteers to support the NHS and vulnerable citizens in just 24 hours, significantly more than the 250,000 initially sought.
Even as it struggles to increase confirmation testing for medical staff, the government said it will soon start a mass rollout of an antibody test for the general public to determine which people may have already had the virus and who could now be immune.
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, told the Commons science committee that the government had already ordered 3.5m antibody tests and was in the process of ordering “millions more”.
Results of large-scale antibody testing will not only tell individuals whether they are safe from further infection, but also help answer two of the biggest unknowns about Covid-19: how widely the virus has spread through the population causing mild or no symptoms, and whether infection produces a strong and durable immune response to the disease.
Answering both will be vital for shaping government policy on relaxing stringent social distancing measures and for the global effort to produce a vaccine against Covid-19.
Downing Street said the UK tested 6,491 people for active coronavirus on Tuesday, up from 5,605 on Monday. Prof Peacock told the science committee that the current plan was to increase that to 11,900 people a day by March 30, rising to 15,000 by mid-April and 25,000 by April 25.
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The test is being assessed by scientists in Oxford, who expect to complete their evaluation of its accuracy and general performance by the end of the week, Prof Peacock said.
She did not reveal the name of the company that is manufacturing the tests but said they would be delivered to the public by Amazon and would also be available through Boots and other pharmacies.
The authorities have not yet decided whether there will be a charge for the test, but Prof Peacock said any charge would be “minimal”.
The antibody testing kit looks similar to a pregnancy test. It involves pricking the finger to produce a drop of blood, which the device analyses to look for two types of immune response to the virus.
Additional reporting by Camilla Hodgson