Minister Helen Whately pledges more tests for NHS medics amid row as thousands unused

A health minister today vowed to increase testing of frontline NHS medics for Covid-19 after it emerged that thousands of potential tests went unused over the weekend.

Care minister Helen Whately’s promise that a planned programme of testing will be rolled out came amid controversy over an apparent failure to make full use of the higher capacity built up over recent weeks.

Public Health England said 9,114 tests were carried out in the 24 hours from Friday morning to 9am Saturday. It said the full capacity was 10,949, meaning it could have carried out another 1,835 tests.

Over the weekend, the shortfall was bigger, Ms Whately indicated, with 7,000 daily tests carried out from a capacity of 10,000.

The Standard understands that the NHS is now organising to ensure that any spare capacity in future is automatically diverted to testing nurses and doctors, in order to reveal which staff should self-isolate and whether some displaying symptoms would in fact be safe to return to work.

Ms Whately told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have achieved the capacity to have 10,000 tests a day. The actual number that were tested on the day in question was I think around 7,000 but within the next three weeks we expect to get to 25,000 tests a day.”

Speaking on Sky later, she said the testing of NHS frontline workers would be stepped up over the next few days.  

“Over the weekend we started testing NHS workers. That’s going to be increased in the weeks ahead.”

“The really important thing … is that we can prioritise the testing to parts of the health and care system where we have particular staff shortages so that we can help by testing people so that we can identify if they are negative so they would no longer need to isolate and they can go back to work.”

The rate of infections appears to be “slowing down” in Britain, one of the top academics whose work guided the Government’s shift to a lockdown policy revealed today.

Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, told Today: “If we look at the numbers of new hospital admissions to date, that does appear to be slowing down. It has not yet plateaued but it is slowing down.” 

He hoped that new tests for antibodies, which will reveal if a person has developed immunity and is safe to go to work as normal, would be available “in days” rather than weeks.

Professor Michael Levitt, the Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist, was more downbeat. “In the UK there are too many outbreaks,” he said. “Italy on the other hand has turned the corner. Switzerland has turned the corner. We hope, but we are not sure yet, that Spain has also.”

Doctors’ leaders stepped up protests at shortages of “basic” equipment including masks and full gowns. “There’s no point in doing all of this, taking such extreme measures, if we don’t get the basics right,” said Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, president of the Doctors’ Association.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for better equipment deliveries “as a matter of urgency”. He also backed a move to community testing and contact tracing to beat the virus, a call also made by former Conservative health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Listen to today’s episode of The Leader podcast:

Mayor Sadiq Khan wrote to the Prime Minister today asking for help for “tens of thousands” of drivers, cleaners and others who are not eligible for bailouts under government schemes for businesses, the self-employed and wage earners.


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