Ministers are being told to get a grip on coronavirus testing as the health secretary closes a loophole that left thousands of its unused and a vast NHS swabbing station stood deserted.
Matt Hancock tonight intervened to end the embarrassing situation in which the number of tests carried out is short of capacity.
A source said the Health Secretary had scrapped a rule that 85 per cent of tests were reserved for patients, regardless of how many needed testing.
A huge NHS coronavirus swabbing site stood deserted today despite the urgent need for more patients and medics to be examined.
Pictures surfaced showing a testing site for NHS staff in Chessington, south-west London, as the UK’s Covid-19 death rate doubled.
No tests appeared to be underway for the virus as the car park sat empty apart from workers’ cars and staff stretched outside the centre.
It came as a record-breaking 381 coronavirus deaths were announced in the UK today, taking the total to 1,789 fatalities.
It marks the darkest day so far for the NHS, which has seen patients dying by the dozen in hospitals in every corner of the country.
Meanwhile, around 30 staff at the testing site were seen standing around as nobody entered from outside all morning.
Workers were seen sitting, standing around and stretching at the testing centre in Chessington, south-west London today
Pictured: The Harrogate Convention Centre was a hive of activity amid reports that it is going to join facilities around the UK providing extra beds to treat patients
Pictured: Stewards organise traffic at a Covid-19 test centre for NHS workers which has opened at Ikea’s store in Wembley, north-west London
Pictured: An NHS worker wearing a mask and goggles takes a man with an unknown condition from an ambulance at the St Thomas’ Hospital on March 31, 2020 in London
Pictured: British Army soldiers get instructions outside the ExCel center which is being turned in to a 4,000 bed temporary hospital for coronavirus patients in London, Tuesday, March 31, 2020
There was little activity at the Chessington coronavirus testing site which was set up as a drive-thru for NHS workers who need to get tested
Pictured: The testing centre at one of Chessington World of Adventures’ car parks which was largely deserted this morning despite the rise in death rates from the novel coronavirus
Staff appeared to have little to do at the Chessington World of Adventures site which has been set up to test NHS workers to see if they can return to work
Pictured: The deserted car park at the testing centre designed to find out which NHS staff have had or do have the Covid-19 virus as countries battle the pandemic
Workers appeared to have little do at the Chessington testing site for NHS staff amid the coronavirus pandemic and Britain’s deadliest day so far during the crisis
The Government is under attack for failing to ramp up its testing quickly enough – only 8,240 patients were screened over the past 24 hours.
Today the Mail reveals that a British firm is selling kits to 80 countries, including India. Novacyt said a shortage of NHS testing facilities had prevented further UK sales. Separately, a former World Health Organisation chief said the Government’s health protection agency had been ‘slow’ over testing and that 44 labs were underused.
No10 admitted its target of carrying out 25,000 tests a day might not be hit until May. As the NHS’s medical director said the number of new cases seemed to be stabilising:
- No 10 insisted it was OK to shop more than once a week contrary to suggestions from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps;
- Ministers are planning to release an app to alert mobile users to nearby virus victims;
- Police who used drones to spy on dog walkers at beauty spots insisted they were only trying to save lives;
- British Airways suspended all flights to and from Gatwick following a collapse in demand;
- Up to £200million worth of plants are expected to be destroyed by closed garden centres;
- MPs demanded a crackdown on banks after business owners were told to risk their homes and savings to secure loans;
- Global coronavirus cases rose to 823,566 with 40,643 deaths.
A drive-thru test centre was established at Chessington World of Adventures and was seen up and operational from Friday to Monday.
But on Tuesday the site – which sits in one of the theme park’s car parks – was quiet as Britain’s daily fatalities figure surged more than twice as high as it was yesterday, when only 180 new fatalities were announced.
Office for National Statistics data showed today that 210 people had died in the UK by March 20, when the Government had only recorded 170 in the same time frame – a difference of almost a quarter. If that ratio remains true the true number of fatalities could be 2,230 or more.
Pictured: The quiet and empty testing site at Chessington World of Adventures in south-west London this morning
Pictured: The quiet Chessington coronavirus swabbing site this morning where no NHS staff were seen entering for testing
10,000 NHS staff tell PM: We need proper protection
By Liz Hull for the Daily Mail
More than 10,000 frontline NHS staff have written to the Prime Minister to demand proper protective equipment amid growing anger that a lack of supplies is putting lives at risk.
Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, last night admitted there had been ‘distribution issues’ but insisted the UK had enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to cope with the pandemic.
Millions of masks, gloves, aprons and other items were delivered to hospitals on Monday, the Government said, with the Army helping to get them out nationwide.
Import taxes on such clothing, ventilators and virus testing kits have also been waived to ease supply, the Chancellor said.
But, despite this, unions representing healthcare workers say their members are complaining in droves about shortages of safety equipment. The GMB said some social care staff were being expected to make visits with just a plastic apron and a pair of gloves – ‘the same protection that they use to make a sandwich.’
The letter to Boris Johnson has been co-ordinated by EveryDoctor, a membership organisation of UK doctors which campaigns on safety in the NHS.
It says NHS guidelines on what medics should wear to treat Covid-19 patients are not stringent enough and should be brought into line with World Health Organisation recommendations. The statement has been signed by more than 20,000 medics, including 10,000 who work in the NHS, in less than two days.
A senior nurse yesterday told the Daily Mail community hospital staff had been left as ‘sitting ducks’ for coronavirus because of a lack of specialist masks and goggles.
The healthcare worker, who has more than 20 years’ experience, said she was forced to take blood from a suspected Covid-19 patient, who later tested positive, at the community hospital in North Wales where she works, with just a ‘flimsy’ paper mask and gloves. Only after managers complained and two more cases were confirmed were more staff measured up for the PPE equipment, she added.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: ‘The full weight of the Government is behind the PPE effort with PPE being sent out 24 hours a day and the Army.’
One of the new victims was just 19 years old, from London, and didn’t have any other health conditions, making them the UK’s youngest otherwise-healthy patient to have died.
More than 3,000 infection cases were also recorded today, taking the UK’s official outbreak size past 25,000 – but the true number remains a mystery because of the controversial policy to only test patients in hospital and not those with mild symptoms.
Some scientists have suggested up to half of the population may have already been infected but Government advisers suggest the figure is closer to the 2million mark.
On Thursday the government announced that it would be rolling out tests in an attempt to boost numbers on the front line.
Hospitals have been recording staff absence rates of up to 50 per cent as staff or members of their households develop symptoms which means they are forced to self-isolate as they do not know if they are safe to work.
Michael Gove, who was standing in for the prime minister at the daily briefing, said: ‘Increasing our testing capacity is absolutely crucial in our response to and our fight against coronavirus.
‘This is a particular priority for those who work in the health and social care sector and are working so hard to keep us all safe.’
The tests for NHS employees started with those who are critical care medics or intensive care staff but also includes those working in emergency departments, ambulance services and GPs.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, said that as testing volumes increased the service would be expanded to cover a range of essential public workers such as social care services.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘The Chessington site has already tested hundreds of NHS key workers since being established in recent days and will play a vital role as national COVID-19 testing infrastructure is scaled up.
‘Testing is a crucial part of the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and we have committed to boosting NHS testing to at least 25,000 a day for patients most in need, as well as testing thousands of healthcare workers a day in the near future.’
More deaths have been recorded in the UK, with 1,808 known fatalities when the individual tallies from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are counted – but the official toll is lower because it cuts off at 5pm the day before, meaning the other fatalities recorded by the devolved nations will be added in to tomorrow’s count.
Andy Burnham, a former health secretary and now Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said ministers had implied they would have hit 25,000 tests a day by now.
He added: ‘Widespread testing is a crucial weapon in the fight against this virus, both in terms of stopping its spread in the community, reassuring the public and getting frontline staff back to work.
‘We need a national effort to help the Government hit its testing targets and that needs to start now.’
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said: ‘The Government needs to move faster on this; mass testing will help reduce the spread of the virus, better protect the key workers who are putting their lives on the line, and help the economy by allowing those who have had the virus to come out of isolation.’
Testing is particularly important for NHS staff as many are self-isolating for up to 14 days when either themselves or family members are showing virus symptoms.
Britain didn’t properly prepare for coronavirus testing because it planned to rely on discredited ‘herd immunity’ strategy, claims leading scientist
By Connor Boyd for MailOnline
The UK gave up on containing the coronavirus outbreak ‘too soon’ because scientists assumed most people would become infected anyway, a leading expert has claimed.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the Edinburgh University, said the assumption led officials to abandon measures that could help slow the pandemic.
Those measures include mass testing and stringent contact tracing – two actions which have helped South Korea keep COVID-19 fatalities below 200.
Early on in the UK’s outbreak, the Government suggested one way of beating the virus was by allowing 80 per cent of Britons to get infected to build ‘herd immunity’.
Professor Sridhar tweeted today that this kind of thinking ‘resulted in the UK giving up on containment too early.’
‘Planning and preparing for unprecedented testing and using big data/apps for tracing were taken off the table. In my view, we went down the wrong path,’ she said.
It comes as a record-breaking 381 coronavirus deaths and 3,009 cases were declared in the UK today, which is now officially Britain’s darkest day so far in the ever-worsening crisis.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the Edinburgh University, said the UK gave up ‘too soon’ on containing the coronavirus outbreak because scientists assumed most people would become infected anyway
Statistics released this morning revealed basic details about the first 108 people in Britain to have COVID-19 mentioned on their death certificate. Elderly people and men were the worst affected, the data showed
By March 20, the coronavirus had become a contributing factor or direct cause in one in every 100 deaths in the UK, according to the latest date from the Office for National Statistics
Britain has been slow to test – less than 5,000 daily swabs were being carried out until March, compared to South Korea’s 15,000.
The UK also gave up on tracing infected patients’ close contacts as cases began to surge and had to impose a nationwide quarantine to stop the virus’ spread.
Whereas South Korea tracked down associates of infected patients and isolated them immediately, meaning it as not needed to enforce such draconian measures.
In a separate series of tweets she added that the UK’s current lockdown was like ‘pressing pause’ on the virus’ spread and ‘playing catch up’.
‘South Korea never had lockdown, only 152 deaths, and didn’t expose health staff to unnecessary risk & pressure,’ she said.
‘Each day in lockdown: kids fall into poverty, domestic abuse increases, social fabric comes apart, major economic hit. Lockdowns are expensive. We need to use the time.
‘We will be stuck in lockdown until we get test, trace, isolation plan. We are basically pressing pause on the spread of virus while we race to catch up.
‘If we’re not using the time now, then we’re just wasting days/months in lockdown not aggressively figuring out where virus is.’
Michael Gove today said the UK must go ‘further, faster’ in ramping up its coronavirus testing efforts
CHEMICAL REAGENTS: NECESSARY FOR TESTING BUT IN HIGH GLOBAL DEMAND
A global shortage of the chemicals needed to produce coronavirus tests has emerged as another setback in the UK’s plans to test more people.
Industry bosses say chemical reagents that are used in the test are in short supply around the world as countries have scrambled to test their citizens for COVID-19.
Lab tests for the coronavirus work by regrowing a patient’s DNA in a lab and examining it to find traces of genetic material left behind by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
For this to work, technicians need a chemical called a reagent to trigger the chemical reaction which starts the process.
There are various types of reagents which can be used in a COVID-19 test, supplied by different companies around the world, but they are in high demand everywhere. They are not unique to coronavirus and are the same reagents used in tests for illnesses such as flu.
The US has 10 different types of reagent listed in the priority list by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is not clear whether the UK is using reagents manufactured on home soil or importing them.
Some NHS labs have now resorted to make their own in ‘home brew’ situations so they can test patients, The Times reported.
Officials are now scrambling to see if there are alternatives to their first choice, according to the newspaper, and are also trying to shore up supplies of swabs, which are vital for tests.
CEO of pharmaceutical company Roche, Severin Schwan, said ‘demand is outstripping supply’ for the reagents. ‘Widespread testing is simply not possible,’ he added.
While the Professional Association of Laboratory Medics in Germany said: ‘The materials required for testing – sample kits, materials for extracting samples, and reagents – are becoming scarce’.
The Australian Medical Association sounded the alarm there two weeks ago, when it said some parts of the government had failed to stockpile the right reagents, The Guardian reported.
It said global demand was ‘exceeding supply’ and that ‘there are particular concerns around supplies of swabs and DNA extraction kits’.
Michael Gove today admitted the government’s coronavirus testing operation must go ‘further, faster’ after Downing Street suggested a target of 25,000 daily checks may not be met until the end of next month.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office said the lack of availability of crucial chemicals which are needed in the testing process was a ‘critical constraint’ on the UK’s efforts.
He said Boris Johnson and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock were now working together to try to source the globally in-demand material that Britain needs.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, Mr Gove said: ‘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 material we need to increase tests of all kinds.’
Critics today labelled the UK’s efforts a ‘catastrophe’ and ‘dismal’ when compared to what is being done in Germany where 500,000 tests are being carried out every week.
Downing Street had earlier hinted at Mr Johnsons’s apparent frustration at the slow progress on ramping up Britain’s capacity, with a spokesman saying he wants ‘as much progress to be made on this as possible’.
The UK is currently managing just under 10,000 tests a day with the government having previously said it wants to get to 25,000 by the middle of April.
But today Number 10 said the timetable was ‘mid to late April’ – seemingly an admission that efforts have stalled.
Politicians from different parties are now lining up to criticise the government’s approach while business chiefs are doing the same.
Jeremy Hunt, the Tory former health secretary, said mass testing in the community must be carried out by the government while Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said the efforts so far were an ’embarrassment’.
Scottish entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne told MailOnline the government’s ‘dismal’ handling of the testing crisis will send vast numbers of British businesses to the wall – and delay the country’s economic recovery.
Experts have insisted ‘organisation’ rather than a shortage of facilities is to blame for the painfully slow rise in checks.
However, there are also suggestions that the UK is struggling to obtain enough of the tests themselves, with Germany seemingly able to acquire them from domestic manufacturers while Britain is having to import them.
It came amid reports that NHS England and NHS Wales ended up bidding against each other for testing equipment at the end of last week, prompting the four Home Nations to agree that all procurement will be done in Whitehall.
Germany has been conducting 500,000 tests a week and is aiming to hit 200,000 tests a day in the near future.
Part of the difference between the UK and Germany is reportedly that the latter has more tests available domestically.
There are also claims that a shipment of testing kit parts from the European mainland has been found to be contaminated with the virus, in another potential delay.
A nurse takes a swab from an NHS worker at a testing facility in Chessington yesterday
Germany is set to start mass immunity testing within weeks
Germany has also been leading the way on testing for individuals who have already been through the virus and emerged with immunity. Such checks could potentially allow people to be issued with certificates saying they are safe to go back to work – easing the lockdown crippling the economy.
The UK government has ordered 17.5million ‘antibody’ tests, but they have yet to go through clinical trials and it is not clear when they can start being used.
A study due to start in Germany in mid-April will see the blood of more than 100,000 volunteers tested for Covid-19 antibodies.
The process will be repeated at regular intervals, with the sample scaling up to track the progress of the epidemic.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said: ‘Germany appears to be leading the way in the testing and we have much to learn from their approach.
‘I’ve repeatedly called for more testing and contact tracing in the UK, and we should be looking at initiatives like this closely.’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted this morning that the government was struggling with the logistical challenge of increasing testing, saying it was not a ‘trivial or straightforward’ task.
‘This is never going to be enough,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. We always need to be pushing.’
Ministers boasted on Sunday that they had reached a target of 10,000 tests a day.
However, while the capacity has been reached, the government has yet to actually carry out that number. The latest figures from Public Health England were 8,278 in the 24 hours to 9am on Sunday, which was actually down from 9,114 the previous day.
The numbers have sparked widespread concerns about the UK approach to testing.
Mr Hunt, the chairman of the Health Select Committee, said it would be ‘very worrying’ if the UK chose not to follow the lead of the likes of Germany and South Korea.
He said mass testing allows for ‘a lot less’ disruption to daily lives because those who have the disease can be isolated and prevented from passing the virus on.
He said: ‘It is internationally proven as the most effective way of breaking the chain of transmission.
‘So 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.’
Mr Farage told MailOnline: ‘Testing is a catastrophe. It’s an embarrassment. We do not appear to have done anything in six weeks to get ourselves in a better position on this.
‘If I was an NHS frontline worker waiting week after week after week for this I would be furious.’
He added: ‘70,000 tests a day in Germany, a million tests now conducted in America, and we in six weeks have managed to do as many tests as the Germans do in two days.
‘Everybody wants to believe in their leader during a crisis and everyone has given Boris the benefit of the doubt… I think public opinion is beginning to ask very serious questions.’
Scottish entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne told MailOnline that the government’s ‘dismal’ handling of the testing crisis will send vast numbers of British businesses to the wall – and delay the country’s economic recovery.
The gym mogul and former Dragons’ Den star said: ‘The Government must get on top of testing immediately. The longer we are in lockdown the more businesses will go bust.
‘My business hands over £39million to the Government every year in VAT, PAYE and corporation tax. As long as we are closed they get nothing. Their handling of the testing issue has been dismal to say the least.’
UK labs ‘can’t cope’ with mass coronavirus testing, meaning millions of British-made swabbing kits are being sold OVERSEAS
A British firm producing millions of pounds worth of coronavirus tests is selling most of them abroad as the UK doesn’t have enough laboratories to use them.
Novacyt has made £17.8million selling its testing equipment to more than 80 countries via its Southampton-based subsidiary Primerdesign.
But only £1million worth has been sold to the UK, raising questions about why Britain is not buying more at a time when there are global shortages of tests.
When asked why the UK had not bought more kits and ramped up testing more quickly, Novacyt group marketing manager Achilleas Neophytou claimed UK laboratory capacity was a ‘limiting factor’.
Pictured: A driver is tested at Chessington testing centre on Monday as the pandemic continues
This included staff available to carry out testing as well as the need for chemicals, he said.
But last night a Public Health England (PHE) spokesman claimed Novacyt was not providing more tests because it was ‘not able to offer the guaranteed continuity of supply we were looking for’.
Ministers are battling to increase testing to 25,000 patients per day by mid-April, but figures remained below 10,000 per day last weekend.
Mr Neophytou said: ‘Even if we delivered ten times the number of kits to the Government, the limiting factor is still capacity of testing and that comes more and more under strain if laboratory staff go into self-isolation.
‘A huge lab could also be brought below capacity if you do not have the consumables and instruments you need to run the tests.
‘We are supplying 21 hospitals in the UK. Some of those serve other hospitals across the country. Some do not have the internal capacity to do these tests.
‘So the number of testing kits is not truly representative of what the actual testing capacity of the country is at the moment.’
Novacyt said it is currently supplying 21 NHS hospitals with Covid-19 tests, which are processed by experts in labs.
It is in discussions with PHE about providing more tests, Mr Neophytou said. However, orders for its kit – which can return test results in two hours – have surged internationally, with regulators in the US, Argentina, the Philippines and Indonesia all fast-tracking the product for use by medical professionals.
Novacyt said it has sold £1.4million worth of tests to India alone, while countries in the Middle East have bought another £1.6million worth.
It is ramping up production with the help of Manchester-based Yourgene and says it will soon be capable of producing four million tests per month.
Novacyt is one of several organisations working with health authorities to roll out wider testing for the coronavirus.
Last week the Government said it was also working with dozens of universities, research institutes and companies to create three new ‘hub laboratories’ to supplement testing already being carried out.
Test makers Randox and Thermo Fisher are involved in these efforts, as well as Amazon, Royal Mail, Boots and the Wellcome Trust.
Universities have donated testing machines and volunteered staff to work in the new facilities, with hopes it will help ramp up the UK testing regime.
There are separate efforts as well to develop so-called rapid tests that do not need to be carried out in laboratories, although PHE is still reviewing these and has not yet recommended them for widespread use.
The World Health Organisation has called on countries to ‘test, test, test’, saying it is the best way to track the coronavirus outbreak and help bring down infection rates.
Cabinet office minister Michael Gove said the Government was increasing the amount of testing.
But during a daily Press conference, he admitted: ‘One of the constraints on our capacity to increase testing overall is the supply of the specific reagents, the specific chemicals that are needed in order to make sure that tests are reliable.’
Last night the Department of Health suggested the tests provided by Novacyt were not as efficient as those being offered by other companies.
They also claimed that the tests wouldn’t avoid the issue of the shortage of chemical reagents, as highlighted by the Government.