NHS bosses tell health secretary that targets for coronavirus tests are “stuck tomorrow” in doubt over 100,000 promises a day

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The health secretary’s promise to dramatically increase coronavirus testing to 100,000 a day was questioned after NHS leaders told him that their test targets were “blocked tomorrow”.

Health bosses told Matt Hancock on Wednesday that they would not be able to increase testing to the required levels without significant help from private and academic laboratories.

The ministers stressed that they were on track to meet Hancock’s ambitious goal as they unveiled major partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and universities to close the test gap.

The government has come under heavy criticism in recent weeks, with Britain’s mass testing program far behind other countries, including Germany and South Korea.

In response, the Secretary of Health last week launched a five-pillar strategy to bring the number of tests in the UK to 100,000 per day by the end of the month.

However, the third pillar – increasing antibody tests to tell people if they have ever had the disease – appears to be collapsing, as the government’s coronavirus testing official has revealed that the tests should not be available until the end of April.

In a frank conference call with health officials, academics and industry leaders, the Secretary of Health was told that NHS labs were struggling to meet their targets for antigen testing, which would help fight the spread of the infection and allow key front-line workers to perform vital tasks and stay safe.

In the slides presented during the presentation, seen by The Telegraph, NHS leaders warned that they were facing a severe shortage of “consumables” – essential chemicals and buffers needed to perform the tests.

“Global competition for PCR consumables, including the NHS, has exhausted the ability of laboratories to source consumables,” the slide says. He added that NHS laboratories are experiencing “immense frustration with the headlines, a deadlock tomorrow and an inability to deliver due to supply chain constraints.”

The expression “jam tomorrow” is derived from Lewis Carroll’s book Alice Through the Looking Glass and refers to promises never kept.

Another NHS slide presented during the presentation reads as follows: “The staff have made every effort to provide the service. We have the staff, we have the platforms to reach 10,000 per target region, but not the specific consumables. We need industry to provide us with enough laboratory consumables on all of our platforms. “

NHS regions have been set a target of 10,000 tests per day to help reach the national figure of 100,000. However, the graphics presented during the presentation revealed that, without significant help from the private sector, laboratories NHS workers in the southeast are expected to perform only 2,480 tests per day by the end of the month.

Ministry of Health figures showed that 14,682 tests were done nationwide on April 7, slightly more than the 14,006 tests done the day before.

Asked Tuesday who “would carry the box” if the target was missed, Dominic Raab, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed that it was Mr. Hancock’s goal.

Health Minister Edward Argar said on Wednesday that Hancock was “determined to achieve this goal,” adding, “He knows how important it is – he is committed to it, as is the government. whole. We are working hard to make sure that we reach this goal. “

Industry leaders and universities expressed their willingness to help during the conference call on Wednesday. An official call to action for private laboratories to provide their essential facilities and reagents will be issued on Thursday.

It has also been announced that a new coronavirus testing laboratory will be set up at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, which aims to process 30,000 tests per day.

The government has said that companies are studying “alternative chemical reagents” for test kits to help overcome current supply shortages. But university vice-rector Stephen Toope told the BBC the facility may not be fully operational until May – after Hancock’s target date.

A so-called super laboratory has already been opened in Milton Keynes in partnership with the American life science company Thermo Fisher, and two more are expected to open in the coming days.

The Francis Crick Institute also plans to open a major testing center in partnership with the University College London Hospitals.

But Sir Paul Nurse, director and CEO of the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Obviously we all have to work together to try to achieve what needs to be done, but 100,000 is a stretch, however. It’s a stretch.

“Practices that are suitable for peacetime are not always suitable for war and we are at war right now. “

With regard to antibody testing, the Department of Health has stated that a British consortium of rapid tests (UK-RTC), including the University of Oxford, Abingdon Health, BBI Solutions and CIGA Healthcare, has been launched “to design and develop a new antibody test” which is grown locally. .

But Professor John Newton, head of government for coronavirus testing, has admitted that the tests will not be available until May, at least after each sample sent to Public Health England has been found to be unreliable. Last month, PHE suggested that the fingerprint tests would be on store shelves in a few days.

“Although the target set by the Secretary of State is not specific to the different types of tests, we do not expect to have antibody tests by the end of April,” said Professor Newton.

It came after the Telegraph spoke to experts who claimed that the lack of blood samples from patients who had suffered from Covid-19 hampered efforts to validate antibody tests

Public Health England (PHE) currently has only a small number of positive blood samples for antibody testing to see if they are working, while the Department of Health is trying to establish a blood bank .

Part of the problem, according to PHE, is that it takes time for an immune response to develop, and therefore the blood of those who have suffered from Covid-19 only reaches the maturity necessary to be used in tests of antibodies.

But some private laboratories have said that their efforts to validate tests that can then be used by front-line staff and the general public are hampered by the fact that PHE does not share its samples.

Professor Karol Sikora, founder of the Rutherford Cancer Centers, said that he and a colleague had attempted to obtain PHE samples to validate certain tests from Korea that could be widely used by the public – but added that many inquiries had not been answered.

“I have 1,000 kits arriving from Korea tomorrow,” he said. “We want to test 50 of them in the laboratory, but in the end, none of us can do anything until we get samples from people who have recovered from the coronavirus.

“But we haven’t received a response from PHE, no one seems to be in charge, they don’t answer the phone, they don’t answer emails. PHE is a very sleepy organization, and they have never had to deal with anything like this before. “

Professor Sikora said officials also hadn’t contacted companies on the exact threshold for a “good test.” He also said that he did not believe the results would be accepted even if a good test was found. “There are a lot of laboratories in a similar situation – maybe 50 or 100 across the country,” he said.

Health Minister Lord Bethell said: “We are rapidly accelerating national efforts to increase the capacity for testing coronaviruses to protect the vulnerable, support our NHS and ultimately save lives.

“I am proud that we have already had an impressive response from companies of different scales and from different sectors who are committed to working together, to share their expertise and resources to create a great British diagnostic industry that can help us perform 100,000 tests per day. end of April. “

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