By Arj Singh
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The World Health Organisation has been clear – the key message for countries tackling coronavirus is “test, test, test”.
But the government has now failed for days to answer clearly why the UK is lagging woefully behind other countries like Germany in its testing for Covid-19.
Just 2,000 out of 1.2m NHS workers have been tested for the virus, while more widely the UK is operating under its 12,750-a-day capacity. The figures pale in comparison to Germany, which is carrying out hundreds of thousands of tests a week.
Ministers are also facing rising anger over the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers.
Business secretary Alok Sharma and Yvonne Doyle, director of health protection for Public Health England (PHE), were sent into the firing line at Wednesday’s Downing Street press conference to try address those concerns.
But they failed to properly answer four key questions.
Why Germany has more tests
Sharma was asked to give a full and proper explanation of why Germany is able to test many more times the number of people than the UK – a question that has plagued the government for days.
Asked whether Germany had more labs and equipment, was perhaps making better use of universities or the private sector, or was even using a better or quicker test, Sharma would only say: “We of course look to see where we can learn throughout this process and of course we are working with industry and we are working with the scientific community to make sure we have maximum possible supplies.”
Targets for more tests
The pair were told that just 1.6% of NHS staff had been tested, and asked to name a target for this time next week.
Doyle said: “The intention there is to go from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. That will have to go on the basis of the priority identified as to which of these workers are actually needed in which settings, particularly where the sickest patients are.
“They will be tested first – that is the intention over the coming weeks.”
But we aren’t testing anything like tens of thousands of medics – just 2,000 NHS England staff have been tested so far.
Elsewhere Doyle said there was capacity for around 3,000 tests a day for frontline NHS staff, insisting that will increase as the government gets closer to its 25,000-a-day target, while pointing out there will be five drive-in test centres which will provide additional capacity.
The government was asked again how it intends to get out of the lockdown and whether mass testing would be a part of it.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt is among many who believe it will be difficult for ministers to lift social distancing and isolation rules and forced closure of businesses without having a better idea of how many people have, or have had, the virus.
Sharma refused to reveal anything about the plan to get out of the lockdown, saying only: “People will understand across the country why we have put these restrictions in place and the prime minister was very clear they were for an initial three-week period and we would review them.
“But what’s also really important is that if we stop these too quickly, there is a possibility that that massive effort people have made across the country is wasted and we could potentially see a dangerous second peak.
“We absolutely want to avoid that.”
Doyle added: “I think it is important to say we are looking at this through the scientific lens, as well as through modelling and through the information we are getting through clinical cases as to how this epidemic is progressing.
“We will be guided by that. We obviously want to make the right call at the right time on this and it is something that we have to keep reviewing every week.
“The testing strategy is to increase the amount of testing done not just in healthcare workers but in the population.”
She insisted the tests must be valid and then officials would work out how to use them along with technology.
“I think that will change as the phases of the epidemic change,” she added.
Unions have warned that the lack of PPE for health staff was a “crisis within a crisis”, and the pair were asked whether the government accepted it was putting workers into a dangerous situation and whether it would act urgently to keep them safe.
Sharma replied: “Over the past two weeks we have delivered over 390m PPE products.
“We have ensured that these are being delivered to every GP practice, to dentists, community pharmacies, and there is also now a 24-hour NHS-run hotline where NHS and social care workers can call and request that PPE if it is needed.
“Of course we will continue to do as much as we can and more to get this equipment to the frontline.”
Doyle said it was “absolutely our commitment” to protect frontline staff and that PHE was in communication with clinical leaders, community leaders and trade unions who were “aware of our intention”.
“We are working rapidly at the moment to ensure deliveries reach where they are needed […] and also that our guidance is easily understood and people understand what is actually needed to keep them safe in the circumstances they are in.”