Coronavirus: NHS to significantly ramp up testing as UK less than a fortnight away from epidemic peak

Ramped up testing comes as health official warns nation could be less than fortnight away from peak in new cases

Vincent Wood
Wednesday 11 March 2020 01:39 GMT
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The NHS is set to increase number of coronavirus tests it can carry out to 10,000 every day – a significant ramping up of a process seen that has so far seen 25,000 people processed since January as the number of people infected in the UK continues to rise.

Approximately 1,500 tests are currently being processed daily at the labs of Public Health England (PHE), with the majority being fully assessed within 24 hours.

However, the NHS has said it will now work with PHE labs to scale up the operation by 500 per cent after the government agency became one of the first in the world to develop a highly sensitive test for verifying the existence of the virus.

It is hoped the increase in capacity will mean healthcare professionals can expand who is tested for the virus – going beyond those who meet the ‘at risk’ criteria to include people in wards and surgeries showing signs of the virus.

It comes as:

  • The number of people infected nationwide increases to 382, the second largest day-on-day increase since the outbreak began
  • Junior health minister and MP Nadine Dorries has confirmed she has contracted the virus. She is believed to have attended an event with the prime minister Boris Johnson before testing positive
  • A man in his early 80s at Watford General Hospital has died after contracting the virus. Officials confirmed he had suffered with an underlying health condition
  • The deputy chief medical officer for England has warned the peak of the epidemic will likely hit in the next 10-14 days
  • Tech companies have partnered with the NHS to stop lies and hoaxes spreading online
  • Routine health checks by GPs may need to be halted to allow doctors to focus on the sickest, the British Medical Association has warned

So far the UK has tested 26,261 people as of 9am on Tuesday – with 25,888 confirmed as negative.

Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England, said: “Wider testing is important as it will help to manage demand as the number of people being tested increases in the coming weeks. This will ensure that PHE and the NHS have the most robust system possible to understand what is happening with the virus.

“PHE has continued to process the vast majority of test results within 24 hours of receiving the sample in a PHE laboratory and returning them to NHS colleagues and will continue to do so.”

It is hoped increases in testing will provide better health outcomes. In Germany 1,565 cases have been confirmed but only two deaths have been announced, with both occurring on Tuesday.

“We in Germany were simply at the forefront in terms of diagnostics,” said Christian Drosten, the director of the Institute for Virology at Berlin's Charite hospital.

The ramped up response from the NHS comes as junior minister and MP Nadine Dorries, 62, confirmed she has been infected by the virus.

Ms Dorries, who represents mid-Bedfordshire in the Commons, was among those to have helped draft the government's response to the epidemic.

It is unclear how much she may have interacted with senior government officials before becoming unwell – however, The Times reported Ms Dorries attended an International Women's Day reception with Boris Johnson at Downing Street, as well as constituency meetings.

This national infection rate now stands at 382, up from 319 the day before, while six people have died in British hospitals.

The most recent took place on Monday night at Watford General Hospital, part of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust. The patient, who is believed to have contracted the virus in the UK, was a man in their early eighties who had underlying health conditions.

Dr Jenny Harries, England's deputy chief medical officer, has said the start of the UK peak of the coronavirus epidemic is expected within the next fortnight

“Within 10 to 14 days we will be likely to advise people with symptoms to self-isolate and we are expecting that start of the peak to come within that period,” she said.

Meanwhile, as officials do battle against the virus in hospitals, the NHS is also working to limit the spread of misinformation surrounding the virus online.

The health service said it had worked with Google, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram on ways to help promote “good advice” when people were searching online for information after a fake twitter account claimed to represent a hospital in Hampshire.

The account, which claimed the hospital had received a number of people presenting with coronavirus-type symptoms, has since been shut down by Twitter.

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, said: “Ensuring the public has easy access to accurate NHS advice, however they search for it, not only will support people to take the right action but will also help the country's response to coronavirus.

However, concerns about the ability of the health service to cope with the scale of the virus remain. Richard Vautrey of the British Medical Association has warned GPs may need to halt routine check-ups to ensure the sickest are seen.

“We will need to stop doing much of the routine work that we do week-by-week to enable us to focus on the sickest patients and prioritise those who most need us,” Dr Vautrey said.

“Practices that are routinely doing routine health checks, assessing blood pressure, diabetic control, and long-term problems with heart and lung disease – those routine checks will need to stop.”

He added: “It does mean that some patients may have to wait longer than normal to see their GP.

“It’s likely to continue for at least a few weeks, if not months. And it's quite possible that there will be more than one wave of infection.”

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