Plans for 100,000 COVID-19 Tests 'A Big Ask'

Peter Russell

April 03, 2020

The Government pledged to carry out 100,000 tests for COVID-19 each day in England by the end of April.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, made the announcement at Thursday's Downing Street coronavirus briefing following intense criticism of the Government's testing strategy.

Newspaper headlines had earlier spoken of 'outrage', 'chaos', and 'shambles' to describe efforts to test health and social care workers for SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Mr Hancock, who had self-isolated for a week after testing positive for COVID-19, said the target of 10,000 tests a day had been reached, and confirmed England's target of 25,000 swab tests a day by the middle of the month.

Hancock's 5-Pillar Plan

He announced that across all new and existing testing programmes, "I am now setting the goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month."

Part of the Government's "5-pillar plan" involved "partnerships with universities, research institutes, and companies", which would be asked to "build from scratch, a network of new labs and testing sites across the country".

The aim of the 5 pillars was to:

  • Scale up swab testing in PHE labs and NHS hospitals for those with a medical need, and the most critical workers, to 25,000 a day by mid-to-late April

  • Deliver increased commercial swab testing for critical key workers in the NHS, before then expanding to key workers in other sectors

  • Develop blood testing to help know if people have the right antibodies and so have high levels of immunity to coronavirus

  • Conduct surveillance testing to learn more about the spread of the disease and help develop new tests and treatments

  • Create a new 'national effort' for testing, to build a mass-testing capacity at a completely new scale

'A Big Task, a Big Ask'

At his Thursday briefing, Mr Hancock promised that commercially-driven swab testing to tell if people had the virus would "significantly increase from this weekend" and "will be used solely for frontline NHS staff and their families".

He said that "increasing testing capacity for NHS staff will allow more doctors and nurses who do not have the disease safely to go back to work".

Mr Hancock admitted on Friday that reaching the 100,000 target was a "big task" and a "big ask".

He told Sky News: "Britain didn't go into this crisis with a big testing industry, big diagnostics industry, but we have got a world beating pharmaceutical industry – companies like AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline – and so they're going to turn some of their industrial might to this question of testing, and we're going to be working with the existing testing companies to really ramp up their effort."

Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England was appointed to oversee the new plans.

The Department of Health and Social Care said: "This science is new and developing, but the aim is for a successful test that can be rolled out at scale, that could allow critical workers – and then the wider population – to return to work and their daily lives."

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: "We welcome the commitment to significantly increase testing, but it is clear there is still a lot of work to do to build up enough diagnostic capacity to achieve this.

"Trust leaders will be pleased to hear that the Government is now working closely with partners from across the university, research, pharmaceutical, and commercial sectors to rapidly grow the facilities and equipment needed to carry out testing in the numbers required.

"Trusts across the country have been rapidly ramping up staff testing and we’re pleased that 5000 tests have now been carried out. But there are still trusts who are still unable to begin testing and all trusts are being held back due to a lack of swabs, reagents, and the test kits required not being available in significant numbers."

Labour called for more details of the Government's testing plans. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said "we still have no details of what proportion of this 100,000 will be PCR tests or antibody tests".

However, Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was possible that almost all of them would be swab tests.

Commenting on the Government's new plans to the Science Media Centre, Dr Rupert Beale of the Francis Crick Institute, said: "Matt Hancock provided very welcome clarity about the true situation with regards to testing. He outlined clearly the challenges that will need to be overcome to increase testing capacity, and acknowledged some of the earlier mistakes that had been made.

"The new and much better plan relies heavily on repurposing the excellent pharmaceutical and biomedical research capability in our country towards highly accurate and reliable testing for COVID-19."

The Francis Crick Institute announced on Thursday that it had repurposed its laboratories to provide capacity for conducting around 500 tests a day, or 3000 each week. In the longer term, it said it hoped to achieve 2000 a day.

It said results could be returned within 24 hours.

Sir Paul Nurse, the Institute's director, said: "Institutes like ours are coming together with a Dunkirk spirit – small boats that collectively can have a huge impact on the national endeavour."

Meanwhile, the University of Cambridge said it was behind a new rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19. It said the SAMBA II machines, developed by Diagnostics for the Real World, could diagnose the infection in less than 90 minutes.

The University said the tests were being deployed in Cambridge hospitals ahead of a nationwide launch.

Editor's note, 3rd April 2020: This article was updated to include the latest information on testing plans.

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