Coronavirus: UK private labs tapped to end test logjam

Government faces growing criticism of failure to ramp up testing programme

A handout image taken and released by 10 Downing Street on March 31, 2020, shows a scrren relaying a Zoom video conference with Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (top row L), chairing a remote session with minister of his Cabinet, whilst still self-isolting from within No 11 Downing Street, in London.  Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Health Secretary Matt Hancock, have been self-isolting since Friday, after announcingthat they had tested positive for COVID-19, as infection rates accelerated and daily death rate rose sharply. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / 10 DOWNING STREET / PIPPA FOWLES" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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The UK is to co-opt dozens of private laboratories for coronavirus tests after widespread criticism of the government’s ability to carry out checks on frontline health workers.

Britain has the capacity to test fewer than 13,000 people a day compared with half a million in Germany, sparking complaints about the government’s level of preparedness to protect staff and patients.

The tests include only 2,000-a-day for health staff amid reports of high levels phoning in sick because of self-isolation after showing symptoms.

“Two thousand is nowhere near where we need to get to,” said Prof Paul Cosford, a senior official at Public Health England.

Prof Cosford told the BBC that officials were examining how “we can use all of these labs, all of that capacity, to boost up to at least 100,000 tests a day, hopefully more”. He said that would be in place in the “coming days and small numbers of weeks”.

Some 30,000 people have tested positive in the UK, with a sharp rise in deaths on Wednesday taking the total to 2,352.

The UK has introduced five drive through testing centres with four more to come on stream soon, said Prof Cosford.

The National reported on Tuesday government had approached industry to try to introduce up to 125 drive-through testing centres through the end of April, needing 2,000 volunteers with specialist skills to carry out the swabbing.

The about-turn on the use of private laboratories follows criticisms from the private sector that their testing machines were lying idle while the government kept the testing programme in-house.

The opposition health spokesman, John Ashworth, said in a tweet that a clear testing strategy was needed to beat the virus.

“Make full use of labs in HE [higher education], research institutions & industry & cut through any bureaucracy holding this back.”

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research facility, said its machines had been retooled to carry out 500 tests a day, rising to 2,000.

“We hope that we can roll this out to other research institutes so that everybody can contribute,” he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised to scale up testing but government officials have said a shortage of chemicals has handicapped their efforts. The industry has contested the claims and said it has delivered the necessary reagents to the health service.

The UK is “massively increasing testing,” the premier said in a video message late Wednesday from Downing Street where is self-isolating after testing positive.

“As I have said for weeks and weeks, this is the way through: this is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle, this is how we will defeat it in the end," Mr Johnson said.

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