Faced with a spiraling coronavirus testing scandal, the U.K. pledges to build a diagnostics industry

April 2, 2020, 7:45 PM UTC

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The U.K. government committed Thursday to building an emergency diagnostics industry “at scale” in order to ramp up widespread testing for COVID-19, after facing days of criticism that even frontline health care workers were struggling to find out whether they had contracted the disease.  

The government committed to ramping up testing to 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month—a 10-fold increase from the current 10,000 tests per day. That was a testing rate lower than those in Spain, Italy, and the U.S.—and came far short of the rate in Germany, which was already testing at least 50,000 people per day, the highest rate in Europe.

On Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the widespread testing in Germany was due to its extensive diagnostics industry, particularly the substantial presence of health care giant Roche, based in Basel, Switzerland.

It was Hancock’s first public appearance after emerging from self-isolation, the result of his testing positive for the coronavirus himself, alongside British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is still in isolation and reportedly experiencing mild symptoms.

“Unlike some countries, we didn’t go into this crisis with a huge diagnostics industry. We have the best scientific labs in the world, but we did not have the scale,” said Hancock.

The German health secretary could call on 100 test labs, he added, “ready and waiting” when the crisis struck. According to the BBC, the U.K. is using only 48 labs for testing.

“We have had to build from a lower base,” Hancock said, adding there had been a shortage of both swabs and reagents critical for doing tests on a wide scale. The U.K. would now build a diagnostics industry, he said, with help from major health care companies that previously hadn’t offered the service.

“This is a huge admission of strategic failure,” tweeted Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal The Lancet and a frequent critic of the U.K. government’s approach in recent weeks.

The U.K. government has faced a growing scandal in recent days over the limited testing for workers in the National Health Service, known as the NHS, where only 5,000 out of about half a million frontline health care workers had received a test for exposure to the virus so far, according to Hancock. That was a higher figure than the one given on Wednesday, when the government said just 2,000 NHS workers had been tested.

Those testing rates were despite reports earlier this week that one in four doctors and one in five nurses in the country is in self-isolation over symptoms and unable to return to work, according to the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing, taking critical resources out of the health service just when they are needed most. Workers in the NHS are also facing a critical lack of personal protective equipment, according to multiple reports from hospitals.

On Thursday, Hancock said there were sufficient stores of protective equipment, but issues with distribution had prevented them from getting everywhere they were needed.

A report this week from BuzzFeed also alleged that a lack of communication from Public Health England had botched an early offer from the government’s animal health agency to use its resources and testing capabilities, which are usually used to test animals for diseases. A spokesperson from Public Health England said scientists across the government had been redeployed to scale up lab-testing capacity for COVID-19.

That came alongside accusations that the government had underestimated the scale of the virus and its impact on the NHS, brushing off WHO guidance to “test, test, test” and spending time instead on a short-lived strategy of pursuing herd immunity, which government officials later said was a miscommunication.

On Thursday, Hancock said that testing had and would continue to be prioritized for patients, for whom a diagnosis could help inform “life or death” decisions about treatment, followed by frontline NHS workers. 

The 100,000 target would include both tests to determine whether someone is currently positive, he said, and antibody tests, to determine whether someone has had the disease and recovered, in order to enable them to return to work safely.

On Thursday, Hancock also batted away repeated questions from journalists about government claims earlier this year that the country and the NHS were well prepared for the scale of the virus. At that time, the government had forecasted that up to 80% of the population of 66.44 million people could eventually be infected, but also claimed that banning large events and closing schools would have little impact on infection rates. 

As of Thursday, 33,718 people in the U.K. had been diagnosed with coronavirus; 2,921 people had died. That includes at least five health care workers, including a physician and 40-year veteran of the NHS, Dr. Alfa Saadu, who had come out of retirement to treat the disease as part of a government scheme to call back health care workers.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Dr. Saadu’s name.

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