UK’s Covid-testing crunch as labs run short of staff and doctors stay away from work

Boris Johnson faces renewed criticism from hospitals over response to battling surge in cases

epa08669660 British Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street for a cabinet meeting in London, Britain, 15 September 2020.  EPA/ANDY RAIN
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The British government faced fierce criticism over its Covid-19 testing programme on Tuesday with a backlog caused by a surge in demand and a shortage of laboratory staff.

Hospitals said doctors had been forced to stay at home because they could not obtain tests to ensure they were not infectious, even before the expected surge of cases this winter.

Leaked documents have suggested that the UK is facing a backlog of almost 200,000 Covid-19 tests, with some being sent abroad for processing despite the government promising a world-beating contact-tracing system in May.

More than 200,000 tests are being carried out every day but demand is much higher after pupils returned to school and as the government pushes for a return to work.

The government has opened seven large laboratories to improve testing and is appealing to recent graduates with a degree in biology to sign up for work, reports say.

Technicians who signed on short-term contracts have returned to their day jobs, while Covid fatigue and holidays hampered efforts in August.

Receiving, unpacking and preparing samples for testing requires “heavy-duty manual labour” that needs to be addressed, a government adviser said.

The giant laboratories, known as Lighthouse Labs, are looking at part-time roles for students with previous experience to fill the gaps.

More than 41,000 people have died in the UK from Covid-19, the fifth-highest toll in the world.

New cases have risen sharply to more than 2,500 a day but are less than half the daily total during the worst of the first wave.

There were widespread reports that no tests were available in the worst hit areas and that there was a crisis in hospitals.

The latest damaging headlines followed reports that people with symptoms were being asked to drive hundreds of kilometres for testing.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week announced Operation Moonshot, a plan to expand testing from hundreds of thousands of tests each day to 10 million by early 2021, but doctors said the programme was already in crisis.

The Government response has been to rely on a random, impressive sounding, overall statistic

Chris Hopson, chief executive of National Health Service hospitals in England, expressed his frustration.

“The government has always seemed more concerned with managing the political implications of operational problems rather than being open and honest about them,” Mr Hopson said.

He said hospitals were “working in the dark” because they were not being told how long the shortages would last.

“The government response has been to rely on a random, impressive sounding, overall statistic or to set out a bold future ambition – a world-class test and trace service by June, or a moonshot testing regime at some point next year.

“Both approaches ignore the operational problem at hand. Neither helps the frontline organisations that actually have to deal with the problem.”

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock giving a statement on coronavirus on September 10, 2020. The law in England will change from next week to reduce the number of people who can gather socially from 30 to six, with some exemptions.

Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, said last week there had been “challenges” but claimed by far most people could get their tests quickly and close to home.

The World Health Organisation said on Monday that testing programmes were one of the basics that needed to be done well to allow societies to reopen safely.

Mr Johnson has promised to deliver a “world-beating” testing strategy.

His Moonshot programme is set to cost more than £100 billion (Dh473.04bn), leaked documents show.

But Dr John Bell, an immunologist who advised the government, said the UK was “definitely behind the curve” in testing capacity.

“This will get worse because we haven’t had winter yet,” Mr Bell told the BBC. “The demand will go up.

"The real questions is if they can get supply in a position where it can outstrip demand.”

He said the shortage of staff should be “relatively easy to solve" but played down the government’s ambitions on mass testing by next year.

“Let’s back off the 10 million a day, that I think is a hard lift,” Dr Bell said.

He told the BBC that he advised the government not to describe the programme as Moonshot.

“Apollo 13 was great, Challenger was not so great,” Dr Bell said, referring to the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster in which seven people died.


Coronavirus testing in Britain

FILE PHOTO: A worker carries an information sign as a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) drive-through testing facility is opened in Bolton, Britain, September 7, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble/File Photo

There are two main Covid-19 tests in the UK to find out whether someone has a current or past infection.

Antigen Tests

Antigen, or virus tests, are used to check if a person has coronavirus. They involve taking a swab sample from the nose and throat. The swab is then sent to a laboratory for a test to check the genetic material of the virus.

Antibody Tests

Antibody tests look for proteins that the body makes to fight off infections in a patient’s blood sample. Antibodies are a sign that a person previously had Covid-19.

It is not yet clear if antibodies protect people from another infection, or how long that protection might last.

The tests are mostly useful for researchers measuring what portion of the population was infected.