Fall in Covid-19 tests putting lives at risk, critics claim

Ministers have been accused of putting lives at risk by failing to rapidly expand testing for coronavirus as promised, after fewer than 5,000 people were tested in one day.

Critics said the government had been misleading people about the scale of its testing programme as it became clear the UK has still not met its initial aim of 10,000 daily tests.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, claimed over the weekend that the goal had been met. But it emerged on Monday that the level of testing had dipped over the weekend, with just 4,908 people tested in the 24 hours before 9am on Sunday.

On Friday, 9,114 tests were carried out on about 6,900 people, with the disparity due to the need for multiple tests following inconclusive results. This dropped on Saturday to 8,278 tests on 4,908 patients – the latest figures available.

Quick guide

What to do if you have coronavirus symptoms in the UK

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Symptoms are defined by the NHS as either:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly

NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

After 14 days, anyone you live with who does not have symptoms can return to their normal routine. But, if anyone in your home gets symptoms, they should stay at home for 7 days from the day their symptoms start. Even if it means they’re at home for longer than 14 days.

If you live with someone who is 70 or over, has a long-term condition, is pregnant or has a weakened immune system, try to find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days.

If you have to stay at home together, try to keep away from each other as much as possible.

After 7 days, if you no longer have a high temperature you can return to your normal routine.

If you still have a high temperature, stay at home until your temperature returns to normal.

If you still have a cough after 7 days, but your temperature is normal, you do not need to continue staying at home. A cough can last for several weeks after the infection has gone.

Staying at home means you should:

  • not go to work, school or public areas
  • not use public transport or taxis
  • not have visitors, such as friends and family, in your home
  • not go out to buy food or collect medicine – order them by phone or online, or ask someone else to drop them off at your home

You can use your garden, if you have one. You can also leave the house to exercise – but stay at least 2 metres away from other people.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, use the NHS 111 coronavirus service to find out what to do.

Source: NHS England on 23 March 2020

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The numbers contrast sharply with those of other countries such as Germany, which is conducting around 70,000 tests daily, or half a million a week.

After the data showed yet another drop in UK testing, Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary and Tory chair of the Commons health select committee, as well as opposition parties called on the government to focus on increasing mass testing across the country to detect, isolate and prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has killed 1,408 people in the UK so far. The World Health Organization has urged countries to “test, test, test”.

“The big advantage we now have is evidence that testing works in other countries. We can see that Asian countries have been spectacularly more successful than European ones in avoiding mass lockdown,” Hunt told the Guardian.

Quick guide

UK lockdown: what are the coronavirus restrictions?

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What do the restrictions involve?

People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home

Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:

  • Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
  • Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
  • Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals

Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.

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A senior source at the Department of Health and Social Care said the UK did not have as much domestic laboratory capacity as Germany but had been working hard to increase numbers.

However, another Whitehall source said the UK’s main problem was that it had tried to source the tests too late after changing strategy in favour of a lockdown, and was now facing stiff competition from other countries around the world.

Keir Starmer, the favourite to become Labour leader, said it was “deeply worrying that the number of people being tested for coronavirus has fallen”.

“Experts across the world have been clear that the best chance we have of fighting this pandemic is to significantly increase the number of people who are being tested, particularly health workers,” he said.

“Ministers need to explain why the NHS is not testing to capacity, why we are falling behind other countries and what measures they will put in place to address this situation as a matter of urgency.”

Munira Wilson, a Liberal Democrat MP and the party spokeswoman on health, also accused the government of having been “not only misleading but reckless” in failing to reach the promised number of tests.

“Stopping the spread of coronavirus is hugely dependent on the public trusting the information and advice the government provides. This sort of behaviour puts that at risk and endangers us all as a result,” she said.

The government has until the last few days limited testing to people with suspected coronavirus in hospitals, care homes and prisons. But it expanded testing to around 900 NHS workers over the weekend and has pledged to increase that further as numbers ramp up. However, it has not set out any plans to widen testing to all suspected cases, as happens in countries such as South Korea.

It is almost three weeks since ministers first promised an increase in testing to 10,000 a day, which has still not been met. The next target, set by Hancock on 18 March, was for testing to increase to 25,000 a day within four weeks of that date.

Quick guide

What are coronavirus symptoms and should I go to a doctor?

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What is Covid-19?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals.

What are the symptoms this coronavirus causes?

The virus can cause pneumonia-like symptoms. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties.

In the UK, the National Heath Service has defined the symptoms as:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly
Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Medical advice varies around the world – with many countries imposing travel bans and lockdowns to try and prevent the spread of the virus. In many place people are being told to stay at home rather than visit a doctor of hospital in person. Check with your local authorities.

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days. If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

How many people have been affected?

China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January. As of 30 March, more than 720,000 people have been infected in more than 150 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

There have been over 34,000 deaths globally. Just over 3,200 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. Italy has been worst affected, with over 10,000 fatalities, and there have been over 6,800 deaths in Spain. The US now has more confirmed cases than any other country. Many of those who have died had underlying health conditions, which the coronavirus complicated.

More than 150,000 people are recorded as having recovered from the coronavirus.

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Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the target was on course to be met, but Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, suggested in a press conference on Monday that it could take another month to reach. She referred to the “25,000 tests per day that Public Health England and NHS England are well on the way to meeting by mid-to-late April”.

Asked about the government’s failure to reach the 10,000 target, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said: “We are operating on multiple fronts to increase the testing. We want to scale that up as swiftly as possible but it has got to be reliable.”

Downing Street appeared to blame Public Health England for the false claim by Gove, saying he had been relying on information given to him by the health experts.

After a week of lockdown conditions in the UK, government advisers said there was some signs the spread of the virus may be slowing.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said Johnson’s guidance on social distancing had been “successful in terms of behaviour changes”, with data showing “a dramatic fall-off in the use of the London tube, bus routes, rail and motor vehicles”.

The rate of hospital admissions was advancing at a steady rate and now stood at 8,000, Vallance said. He said this “may suggest we are beginning to see some effects through” from the government’s initial social distancing advice, announced two weeks ago.

The Guardian

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