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Ministers urged to step up Covid-19 testing as boy, 13, joins soaring death toll

NHS staff are frustrated as the Government fails to meet its target of 10,000 tests a day.

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A Covid-19 drive-through test centre for NHS workers in Wembley, north-west London (Jonathan Brady/PA)

A Covid-19 drive-through test centre for NHS workers in Wembley, north-west London (Jonathan Brady/PA)

A Covid-19 drive-through test centre for NHS workers in Wembley, north-west London (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Ministers are under growing pressure to increase the rate of testing for coronavirus, as a 13-year-old boy became the first known child in the UK to die with the disease.

A 19-year-old with no existing medical issues has also died and the UK saw its biggest day-on-day rise in the number of deaths since the outbreak began – up 381 on 24 hours previously to a total of 1,789.

NHS staff have expressed frustration that they are being forced to self-isolate just as they are most needed, because tests are not available to show whether they are clear of the disease.

The Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association all say testing of frontline staff is desperately needed.

Critics have also warned that mass community testing is the only safe way of lifting the lockdown without risking a fresh outbreak of the virus.

Public Health England (PHE) has repeatedly said that testing people in the community with mild symptoms is not necessary.

On Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said hospitals should use all spare laboratory space to test NHS staff.

Earlier in the week, trusts were told by NHS England to use up to 15% of their testing capability on staff but Mr Hancock has now said all spare capacity should be used.

Some heads of regional laboratories have said their offers of help with testing have largely been ignored by PHE, while, on Tuesday, former World Health Organisation director Prof Anthony Costello said the UK has the capacity to test hundreds of thousands more people.

He said: “By mass testing, we can detect new outbreaks and there will be much less disruption rather than isolating the whole economy.

“We have 44 molecular virology labs in the UK. If they were doing 400 tests a day, we would be up to Germany levels of testing (around 70,000 a day) and that is perfectly feasible.”

Coronavirus
Michael Gove has said the Government needs to go ‘further, faster’ on testing (Pippa Fowles/Crown Copyright/10 Downing Street/PA)

Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said on Wednesday that he hopes to see “significant increases” in testing levels this week.

He told Good Morning Britain: “We expect to be at 15,000 tests over the course of this week and then moving further forward in the future.”

On the suggestion that Britain, in comparison to Germany, has not prepared properly to run a comprehensive testing system, he said: “I accept that we do need to ramp up production significantly. It isn’t easy to procure the tests in a global pandemic because there is a great deal of demand.

“Some countries have proved to be more able to get tests – that is partly dependent on the manufacturing base in their own country.

“Different countries have different healthcare manufacturing strengths. I think we will see, with ventilators for example, some of the strengths of British manufacturing coming through.”

Cabinet minister Michael Gove acknowledged at the daily Number 10 news conference on Tuesday that the Government needed to go “further, faster”.

However, he said a shortage of the chemical reagents needed for the tests was proving to be a “critical constraint” on the Government’s ability to ramp up capacity.

Currently about 8,000 tests a day are being carried out, despite ministers having previously claimed to have met a target of 10,000 a day.

A further target of 25,000 tests a day is not now expected to be reached until the end of April.

With up to one in four hospital doctors reportedly off sick or self-isolating, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, expressed concern there was limited capacity to test staff.

Labour deputy leadership candidate and A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan shared a letter she has sent to Mr Hancock asking “how long” NHS staff will have to wait for testing.

She said the “lack of testing is having a huge mental health impact on our NHS workforce”.

Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “very worrying” that the Government was not pursuing a policy of mass testing.

He said it had been the key to finally controlling the outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the disease first appeared.

“It is internationally proven as the most effective way of breaking the chain of transmission,” he said.

“However difficult it is to source the reagents to ramp up the capacity of laboratories up and down the country, it is essential that mass community testing is part of our national strategy.”

Mr Gove said Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mr Hancock, who are both self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19, were working with companies worldwide to get the materials needed.

The Chemical Industries Association acknowledged demand was “escalating” but said reagents were being manufactured and delivered to the NHS.

Coronavirus-related deaths in the UK
(PA Graphics)

“Every business here in the UK and globally is looking at what they can do to help meet the demand as a matter of urgency,” it said.

Earlier, it emerged that 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab died at King’s College Hospital in London. He is believed to be the youngest victim in England.

His family said to their knowledge he did not have any underlying health conditions.

Some 1,789 patients had died overall in UK hospitals as of 5pm on Monday.

PA