Ministers’ promises to test 100,000 people a day for the coronavirus by the end of the month are probably impossible to keep, NHS scientists warned last night.
Secretary of Health Matt Hancock’s plan is in serious doubt due to the lack of essential test equipment, including chemical reagents, test tubes and swabs.
The Institute for Biomedical Sciences (IBMS), which represents approximately 17,000 scientists and laboratory staff from the NHS, issued its first major statement on the crisis due to “frustration” with the shortages.
Secretary of Health Matt Hancock’s plan is in serious doubt due to the lack of essential test equipment, including chemical reagents, test tubes and swabs. He is pictured in the center at the opening of the NHS Nightingale Hospital in London
He said testing 25,000 people a day would be “very easy” with the staff and laboratories available.
But the inability of health officials to place early orders to foreign companies for plastic reagents and kits means that 100,000 cannot be done without a “real push” to increase supplies.
IBMS President Allan Wilson said laboratories are already unable to perform tests, even at the relatively slow rate today.
He added, “When politicians come up with goals like this, it’s hard not to sigh. I don’t think 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month are achievable given the supply issues. It would take a real boost.
The Institute for Biomedical Sciences (IBMS), which represents around 17,000 scientists and laboratory staff at the NHS, issued its first major statement on the crisis due to “frustration” with the shortages.
“Initially, there was no NHS testing strategy, so we were on the sidelines.
“The officials didn’t seem to think testing was important at first, so they didn’t do much.
“By the time they recognized the problem, supply chains were already taken over by other countries and companies that could have helped us were hired elsewhere. “
Hancock promised a tenfold increase in coronavirus testing after admitting that Britain was behind on the “critical” issue.
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Matt Hancock warned that the virus was continuing its “sinister march” as the death toll yesterday climbed to a record 684 for a total of 3,605.
Asked if the crisis could peak around April 12, Hancock said, “I’m not going to take you away from it. This is a perfectly possible result. We are ready not only for this eventuality but also for it if it is worse than that. “
The number of deaths more than tripled in a week.
Yesterday, NHS data revealed that half of the patients who died from the virus were over the age of 80.
Of the 3,302 deaths in hospitals in England, 1,749 were 80 or over, 39% were 60 to 70 years of age and 7% were 40 to 59 years of age.
A total of 29 were under the age of 40, including three children and adolescents.
Germany tests more than 70,000 people a day, while only 11,764 were carried out in England on Thursday.
Ministers privately complained that Public Health England had resisted the use of private laboratories for testing, but the IBMS has now highlighted the supply crisis.
The main shortages identified by the IBMS relate to reagents – chemicals that extract the genetic code from the swab virus so that they can be tested – and the plastic tubes used to hold the samples.
Wilson said, “My concern is that if we don’t resolve these supply chain issues, we may find ourselves in a position where hospitals will not be able to test all patients and will have to try to judge who has Covid- 19 and treat them accordingly.
“It could see patients with and without coronavirus treated together, which would really increase the risk of infection.
“If all patients are tested to the extent possible, as is currently the case and we hope it will continue, it could mean that not all healthcare workers will be tested. “
Test equipment is also supplied by British companies, which cannot keep up with the growing demand. Laboratory workers say there is no problem with having enough staff for testing, as they have recruited highly qualified staff and operate a 24-hour service.
At the moment, Britain is doing antigen tests, which establish if people currently have a coronavirus.
But the government admitted yesterday that it had failed its antibody test – which shows if someone has had the disease and therefore has immunity – which further compromises the 100,000 target per day.
The government has ordered 17.5 million “revolutionary” tests.
But it turned out that many do not work. Hancock said, “We don’t have a reliable home test. I don’t think an entry into service will hit the 100,000 target. ”
Responding to criticism from the IBMS, Hancock acknowledged that it would be “difficult” to get vital equipment on time.
He added: “We are absolutely determined to reach the new target of 100,000 tests per day. Yes, this will involve certain challenges. Everyone can see that there are challenges in the world, but we are determined to get there. “
He said 7,000 NHS workers have now been tested and about 35,000 are currently on sick leave.
Hospitals have started to suspend vital organ transplants in a desperate attempt to free up beds.
Health bosses have warned that high-risk operations could be entirely abandoned in a matter of days as the NHS prepares for an increase in Covid-19 cases.
A shortage of NHS workers and the lack of intensive care beds have already seen some hospitals suspend procedures. Although partly motivated by the desire to protect the health of patients, it will leave many people at increased risk of death.
The NHS Blood and Transplant Group said: “A complete cessation of activity is not currently universally supported by the clinical community, but we also recognize that this time can only be in a few days. “