Coronavirus: Government asks private industry to help ramp up testing

Health secretary Matt Hancock returns from self-isolation with five-point plan amid criticism of slow official response

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 02 April 2020 11:23 BST
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Coronavirus in numbers

The government is appealing for help from private industry to dramatically ramp up testing for coronavirus as pressure mounts on Boris Johnson over the failure of official attempts to accelerate checks for frontline NHS staff.

With ministers facing a deluge of criticism over figures showing just 2,000 of the estimated 125,000 self-isolating frontline medics had been tested for Covid-19, health secretary Matt Hancock held a virtual meeting with the pharmaceutical industry to ask for help in scaling up capacity. On his return to Westminster today after self-isolating for seven days with coronavirus symptoms, he is expected to set out a five-point plan to try to restore momentum to the government’s strategy.

The medical director of Public Health England (PHE), which has been accused of taking an overly bureaucratic approach to testing, insisted that the body had “played our part” in making sure tests were available for patients in hospitals. But Professor Paul Cosford said that the job of using outside laboratories to boost testing potentially to as much as 100,000 a day was for the separate Office for Life Sciences, which is the joint responsibility of Mr Hancock and business secretary Alok Sharma.

Downing Street said the number of self-isolating NHS staff tested at drive-through facilities had increased to 2,800 by Wednesday, with "significant" numbers of frontline medics tested in hospitals.

Meanwhile, a growing number of industrial and academic labs were coming forward to highlight opportunities to conduct tests outside PHE labs, in what one scientist described as a repeat of the flotilla of “little boats” which saved the day at Dunkirk.

Ministers have been accused of snubbing offers of help from the wider scientific community while relying on NHS hospital facilities and PHE’s network of eight labs.

But Downing Street said it had accepted the loan of testing machines from almost 100 institutions to set up a new testing centre which started operations in Milton Keynes this week. Two similar large-scale labs are due to open next week in Cheshire and Glasgow to process tests from the North of England and Scotland.

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, said its research laboratory was being repurposed to carry out 500 Covid-19 tests a day by next week, rising to 2,000 later, and suggested other research centres could offer similar help.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “A metaphor here is Dunkirk – we are a lot of little boats and the little boats can be effective.

“The government has put some big boats, destroyers in place. That’s a bit more cumbersome to get working and we wish them all the luck to do that, but we little boats can contribute as well.”

The University of Oxford was reported to have 119 unused testing machines available, while the Animal and Plant Health Agency was said to have potential capacity for 40,000 tests a week and one medical research laboratory in Abingdon launched a drive for up to 1,000 small labs across the country to volunteer to test frontline healthcare workers.

In a video message issued late on Wednesday, the prime minister – who is himself self-isolating after developing symptoms – said that testing was “the way through” the crisis.

Admitting that the government needs to “massively ramp up” testing so NHS staff who are self-isolating unnecessarily can return to work, Mr Johnson said: “This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end.”

Labour called for clarity on how ministers plan to increase antigen testing, which did not meet last week’s target of 10,000 daily until Tuesday this week – despite lab capacity rising to 12,750 – at a time when Germany is testing 500,000 people a week and the World Health Organisation is urging all countries to “test, test, test”.

Shadow cabinet member Shami Chakrabarti said: “We’re asking the government to be transparent and to be clear … about what its plans are to deliver the kind of scale of testing that we need, both to get the NHS workforce tested but also to return as quickly as possible to community-based testing.

“Without widespread testing in the population, we don’t understand – having listened to experts – the way out of the lockdown.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, tweeted: “We need clear National Testing Strategy to beat the virus. Make full use of labs in HE [higher education], research institutions & industry & cut through any bureaucracy holding this back. Community testing & tracing is way out of lockdown cycles until vaccine found.”

Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson have both tested positive for coronavirus
Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson have both tested positive for coronavirus (AP)

Speaking after his video conference, Mr Hancock said: “I’ve called together our pharmaceutical giants and testing specialists to call on them to build a scale of diagnostic capability never before seen in this country.

“It is a huge task but they know they have the have the full support of this government as we work towards this common goal in the national interest, as part of our national effort to tackle coronavirus.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said Mr Hancock had asked for “solutions which could be scaled up immediately and at pace to deliver an immediate boost to capacity and delivery – as well as medium-term solutions which would sustain and further grow this capacity over the course of the emergency response in the coming weeks and months”.

And Mr Johnson's official spokesman said the NHS has developed a new swab specification which is being shared with potential manufacturers in the hope that it will provide a means to increase testing to the hundreds of thousands.

A five-point plan being launched today is expected to feature boosting testing capacity; paying private firms to conduct swab testing; rolling out antibody tests which show whether someone has had the illness and recovered; randomised sampling of the population; and building up Britain’s long-term diagnostic capacity by working with pharmaceutical firms.

Prof Cosford admitted that “everybody involved is frustrated” by the low number of tests being carried out.

He said he expected testing to hit 15,000 per day “imminently” and 25,000 by the middle of April, with five drive-through NHS staff testing hubs up and running and another four “to come on stream this week”.

One hospital had managed to get 100 workers back to work after testing staff, he said.

Work being led by the Office for Life Sciences “to look at a much broader set of universities, industry and other laboratories” will “give us another 100,000 or more tests per day”, Prof Cosford continued.

“We’ve certainly not refused any help from any laboratories and we’ve talked to many about what might be possible.

“It’s actually worse to have wrong tests than no tests at all. We need to be very careful to make sure that the tests we use are tests that work.”

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