Labour has said the government has ‘big questions’ to answer as to why it was continually missing its coronavirus testing target.
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NHS staff have expressed frustration that they are being forced to self-isolate just as they are most needed, because tests are not available to show whether they are clear of the disease.
The Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association all say testing of frontline staff is desperately needed.
Critics have also warned that mass community testing is the only safe way of lifting the lockdown without risking a fresh outbreak of the virus.
Public Health England (PHE) has repeatedly said that testing people in the community with mild symptoms is not necessary.
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Some heads of regional laboratories have said their offers of help with testing have largely been ignored by PHE, while, on Tuesday, former World Health Organisation director Prof Anthony Costello said the UK has the capacity to test hundreds of thousands more people.
He said: ‘By mass testing, we can detect new outbreaks and there will be much less disruption rather than isolating the whole economy.
‘We have 44 molecular virology labs in the UK. If they were doing 400 tests a day, we would be up to Germany levels of testing (around 70,000 a day) and that is perfectly feasible.’
Housing and communities secretary Robert Jenrick said that he hopes to see ‘significant increases’ in testing levels this week.
He told Good Morning Britain: ‘We expect to be at 15,000 tests over the course of this week and then moving further forward in the future.’
On the suggestion that Britain, in comparison to Germany, has not prepared properly to run a comprehensive testing system, he said: ‘I accept that we do need to ramp up production significantly. It isn’t easy to procure the tests in a global pandemic because there is a great deal of demand.
‘Some countries have proved to be more able to get tests – that is partly dependent on the manufacturing base in their own country.
‘Different countries have different healthcare manufacturing strengths. I think we will see, with ventilators for example, some of the strengths of British manufacturing coming through.’
Cabinet minister Michael Gove acknowledged at the daily Number 10 news conference that the government needed to go ‘further, faster’.
However, he said a shortage of the chemical reagents needed for the tests was proving to be a ‘critical constraint’ on the government’s ability to ramp up capacity.
Currently about 8,000 tests a day are being carried out, despite ministers having previously claimed to have met a target of 10,000 a day.
A further target of 25,000 tests a day is not now expected to be reached until the end of April.
With up to one in four hospital doctors reportedly off sick or self-isolating, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, expressed concern there was limited capacity to test staff.
Labour deputy leadership candidate and A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan shared a letter she has sent to Hancock asking ‘how long’ NHS staff will have to wait for testing.
She said the ‘lack of testing is having a huge mental health impact on our NHS workforce’.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said that ‘Germany appears to be leading the way in the testing and we have much to learn from their approach.’
He said there were ‘big questions’ for the government about why the UK has not reached the target of 70,000 tests a week while Germany had reached 500,000.
Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was ‘very worrying’ that the government was not pursuing a policy of mass testing.
He said it had been the key to finally controlling the outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the disease first appeared.
‘It is internationally proven as the most effective way of breaking the chain of transmission,’ he said.
‘However difficult it is to source the reagents to ramp up the capacity of laboratories up and down the country, it is essential that mass community testing is part of our national strategy.’
Gove said prime minister Boris Johnson and Hancock, who are both self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19, were working with companies worldwide to get the materials needed.
The Chemical Industries Association acknowledged demand was ‘escalating’ but said reagents were being manufactured and delivered to the NHS.
‘Every business here in the UK and globally is looking at what they can do to help meet the demand as a matter of urgency,’ it said.