Britain’s daily death toll from coronavirus jumped sharply to a record 381 on Tuesday, as ministers admitted they were having problems securing the tests needed to keep NHS staff at work as the crisis nears its peak.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, said the government was finding it hard to secure “the supply of specific chemicals to make sure the tests are reliable”, as the government’s testing strategy came under attack.
Jeremy Hunt, former Tory health secretary, called on ministers to follow countries like South Korea and Singapore by adopting a massive increase in community testing, including the quarantining of people suspected of having the disease, to offer an exit strategy from the current lockdown.
But the prospects of such an abrupt shift seemed highly unlikely, given that hospitals are struggling to administer even 10,000 tests a day — a target that Mr Gove claimed had been achieved last weekend.
According to the latest daily data some 8,240 people were tested, while Downing Street admitted it could be “mid to late April” before 25,000 daily tests were being administered. Matt Hancock, health secretary, said on March 18 he hoped to reach that target by April 15.
Mr Gove said the new figure for fatalities was “deeply shocking” and testing had to go “further and faster”, but his admission that the NHS was encountering a shortage of reagents — a key ingredient of tests to establish if someone is suffering from the virus — is a potentially serious problem.
The UK’s Chemical Industries Association said that while demand had risen, reagents continued to be manufactured and delivered to the NHS, with businesses worldwide working to meet that surge.
“To clarify the exact NHS need and meet it, all relevant UK industries are continuing to work closely with government,” it said.
Last week, Switzerland’s Roche, which makes one of the most common types of testing kits worldwide and is working with the UK to test 25,000 swabs a day, came under fire in the Netherlands after lawmakers there accused it of rationing supply and not sharing the formula for the chemical used to carry out these tests.
The company denied the claims but eventually shared the formula with the Dutch government. A Roche spokesman said the company was producing as much of the chemical as it could but that “at the height of any global health emergency, demand will outweigh supply”.
Most tests available in Britain are being used to assess patients arriving in hospital with coronavirus symptoms, leaving few available to carry out the screening of hundreds of thousands of NHS staff, allowing them to return to work if they proved clear.
With one in four doctors either on sick leave or self-isolating, hospitals are expected to come under severe strain in the coming weeks. Latest figures showed some 1,789 patients with coronavirus had died in UK hospitals, up by 381 on the day before.
Stephen Powis, medical director for NHS England, said hospitals were braced for a “surge” of cases, but said there were some “green shoots” that encouraged him to think that drastic social distancing measures were working.
Mr Powis said there was “a sign of a plateau” in the number of daily hospital admissions and they were not accelerating, but he added: “We are not out of the woods, we are very much in the woods.”
Mr Gove said NHS hospitals would receive the first in a new wave of ventilators next week, saying that they would start rolling off the production line at the weekend.
The Cabinet Office said the device was being manufactured by a consortium including Formula 1 teams McLaren and Mercedes, Ford, Siemens and Meggitt.
Government officials confirmed that only 30 new UK manufactured ventilators would arrive this weekend. However, they insisted that these would be the first of thousands and more would continue to arrive next week.
Some 10,767 people have been hospitalised in England with the disease, including 3,915 in London. Mr Powis said there had been an “accelerating” number of cases in the Midlands, with 1,918 hospital admissions.
Mr Hunt said the government should now change tack and move to “mass community testing”. Citing the examples of South Korea, Germany and Wuhan in China, he said: “It’s internationally proven to be the most effective way of breaking the chain of transmission.”
Mr Hunt argued that Asian countries had been able to contain the virus using aggressive testing and identification of contacts, including quarantining measures, without causing massive economic disruption.
Britain stopped testing people with mild symptoms of the disease on March 12 and Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, insisted the outbreak in Britain had different characteristics to the situation in South Korea, where there had been “a very significant outbreak in two locations”.
Meanwhile Rishi Sunak, chancellor, has waived import taxes on medical equipment used in the fight against coronavirus, effectively shifting the cost from the NHS to another arm of government: HM Revenue & Customs.
NHS suppliers will no longer have to pay customs duty and import VAT on specific medical goods coming from outside the EU, including ventilators, coronavirus testing kits and protective clothing.
The Treasury insisted the move was not a gimmick, arguing that it would reduce red tape at the border and would “make it more attractive to companies who want to make or donate equipment to us”.