Coronavirus testing: What is the UK government’s plan?

Coronavirus testing: What is the UK government’s plan?

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Coronavirus tests are still not being made routinely available for NHS workers, despite the government describing it as a “priority”.

Health secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament he wanted “to get to a point where anybody who wants to get tested can get tested,” but that “at the moment, we are having to reserve the tests we have for patients, especially in intensive care”.

What is the UK doing?

Currently only people in hospital are being routinely tested, so if you have symptoms and you’re not sure if you have the virus, you may well not be able to find out – even if you’re working for the NHS.

In total, 90,436 people in the UK had been tested for coronavirus as of 24 March – currently between 5,000 and 6,000 a day. The government plans to increase this to 25,000 tests a day within four weeks.

There are two main reasons for testing people – to diagnose them individually, and to try to understand how far the virus has spread in the wider population. This second reason is referred to as “surveillance testing”.

The UK is not currently doing any mass surveillance testing or actively tracing people who have come into contact with known cases.

Not testing more widely means that many people might be self-isolating for no good reason, including NHS workers. And healthcare staff have also raised concerns that they could be spreading the infection unknowingly.

What do I need to know about the coronavirus?

Should the UK be testing more people?

The director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he had a “simple message” for all countries: “Test, test, test.”

He added: “We cannot stop this pandemic if we do not know who is infected.”

So why is the UK not testing more people?

Ultimately, this mainly comes down to resources. Every country is limited by how much money, equipment and staff it has – at the moment the UK doesn’t have the capacity to do mass testing, so healthcare systems have to prioritise.

It’s also partly to do with how widespread the virus is.

“Testing and contact tracing is critical – particularly in the early stages,” according to Prof Mark Woolhouse, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Edinburgh.

However, he says once you are beyond the “containment phase”, this may become less useful.

If the illness becomes so widespread that the cases known to health services are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many more milder cases among people who don’t present, then “contact-tracing of the small fraction of cases that are visible won’t do very much,” he said.

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But Prof Jonathan Ball, a molecular virologist at the University of Nottingham, believes the current testing regime “doesn’t go nearly far enough”.

“To have any impact on the spread of this virus there has to be more widespread testing out in the community,” he says.

“We need to get a handle on where the virus is circulating most and better inform people of the cause of their respiratory symptoms, so that self-isolation is better informed and more likely to be enacted.”

He points to South Korea, where “active community surveillance” has been far more extensive and has had “a major impact on flattening the curve and relieving pressure on stretched health services”.

New tests

At the moment, when people are tested to see if they currently have the virus, a swab is taken, the virus has to be extracted and then run through a machine to look for the virus’s genetic material. This means the sample has to be taken to a lab and processed, which takes time.

But scientists have been working towards quicker tests which can either look for the virus itself in the blood or check for the presence of antibodies (produced by the body to fight off infection) which could indicate whether someone has had the disease in the past.

This could speed things up, allowing many more people to be tested. And an antibody test could help work out how widespread the disease has been and whether people are safe to go back to work.

The government said it has bought 3.5 million of the tests and plans to make them available “very soon”.

It has also approached companies like Amazon to deliver test kits to people which they could take at work or at home, according to a report by the Financial Times.

What are other countries doing?

The UK has done more testing than many other countries, although not more than the most rigorous testers like South Korea.

The UK passed its 2,500th case on 18 March and had tested 828 people per million of its population. At the same point in their outbreaks, Italy had conducted 386 tests per million citizens, while South Korea had done more than 2,000 tests per million.


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