The five questions the Government must answer on the coronavirus testing fiasco

As the Government comes under mounting pressure over the UK’s testing capacity, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, has vowed to “massively ramp up” the number being performed daily. 

In a video message on Wednesday evening, Mr Johnson said testing was the key with which the UK “will unlock the coronavirus puzzle” and “defeat it in the end”. 

However, despite his optimism, the failure of his administration to answer even basic questions about the UK’s performance in relation to other countries is a growing source of frustration among MPs. 

Here, we list the five questions ministers must answer in order to reassure the public that they are getting on top of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Why does the UK’s testing capacity lag so far behind countries like Germany?

One of the main factors fuelling anger at ministers in recent days has been the relatively few tests performed in the UK compared to several other Western nations.

While the UK has now tested 152,000 people and has capacity for 13,000 tests per day, Germany is conducting more than 50,000 every 24 hours and is nearing a total of one million. 

Meanwhile, Italy has conducted a total of 541,000 tests, while Spain says it is testing between 15,000 and 20,000 people per day.

When asked to explain why Germany was so far ahead of the UK, both Michael Gove and Alok Sharma said only that Britain was open to learning from the strategy adopted by other countries. 

Privately, however, Government sources have argued that comparisons with Germany are unfair because the country is home to some of the world’s leading biotech and diagnostic companies. 

One insider told Politico that Germany had started off with a “whole load of potential capacity” and the UK was not doing “everything we can to catch up”. 

Why has the UK been so slow to enlist the private sector?

While Germany may have been in a stronger position to begin with, critics of the Government’s approach say it has been far too slow to change its approach. 

The clearest example of this has been the failure, until now, to enlist the help of private laboratories, research institutes and universities, which could significantly increase testing capacity. 

This has been blamed on Public Health England’s strict rules on where and how testing takes place, with the current procedures setting out precise chemicals and equipment that must be used. 

There is now mounting pressure on ministers to relax the rules, with Sir Paul Nurse, the chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, urging the Prime Minister to adopt a “Dunkirk” approach by allowing “small ship” laboratories to participate.

In response, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has indicated to industry bodies that the Government will begin decentralising the process and start using private labs. However, how many will be enlisted – and how long it will take to get them up and running – remains unclear.

Why are so few NHS workers being tested? 

From the onset of the pandemic, ministers have praised the vital work NHS staff are doing on the front line. 

However, there is growing anger at the lack of testing of doctors and nurses, despite the heightened risk they face as a result of being in close contact with patients.

MPs have also questioned why, with an estimated one in four staff either sick or self-isolating, only 2,000 out of 550,00 have so far been tested – and why, despite capacity hitting 10,000 over the weekend, the actual number of tests performed is not rising at the same rate. 

It later emerged that NHS trusts had originally been told to allocate just 15 per cent of their daily testing capacity to staff, with the rest left for patients, meaning that spare capacity is likely to have been wasted. This has now been changed following orders from Downing Street, with trusts told instead to “max out all available capacity”. 

On Thursday, Professor Paul Cosford of Public Health England said NHS staff were now being prioritised to ensure those who are self-isolating but not sick can return to work. He added that five drive-through NHS staff testing hubs were now operating, with “another four to come on steam this week”. 

However, it remains unclear how long it will take for the UK to reach the capacity to introduce routine testing for all NHS staff, with the Government saying only that it hopes to be able to conduct 100,000 tests per day at some point in the future .

When will the antibody tests be ready? 

For weeks now, Mr Johnson and health experts have claimed that a new test that will be able to tell people whether they have had coronavirus and are now immune is a “game changer”. 

The UK has purchased 3.5 million, with millions more ordered, and last week reports suggested people would be able to purchase the tests through online sellers such as Amazon.

However, fast forward a week and it still remains unclear exactly when they will be available – if at all. 

The tests are currently being assessed by regulators to ensure they are not defective, with the chief and deputy medical officers warning that “a bad test is worse than no test”. 

Earlier this week, Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College, part of the team of scientists advising the Government, claimed the tests could be ready within “days rather than weeks”. 

But when asked for a deadline on Wednesday, Public Health England medical director Professor Yvonne Doyle said only that the authorities were working to get tests out “as soon as we can”. 

What is the exit strategy?

With the epidemic due to peak in around three weeks, the focus of the Government and medical authorities from then on will begin shifting towards an easing of the social distancing measures which have brought normal life to halt. 

However, there are serious questions about whether the UK will be in a position to be able to end the lockdown. This is because it is lagging so badly behind other countries on mass testing – a key component of every exit strategy devised so far.  

You can only wind down a lockdown safely if you know those who are returning to work are free from the virus or, better still, have immunity.

Until ministers can provide clear deadlines for reaching German levels of testing, it is unclear how the UK will be able to safely return to business as usual without running the risk of a second wave of infections. 

There are also questions over whether Britain will gradually phase out social distancing measures, whether healthy and immune people will be allowed to return to normal first, and whether we can expect to impose localised quarantine zones should outbreaks flare up again in the future.

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