LONDON – With Brits worrying last week that a new six-person meeting limit would actually cancel Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled what he called Operation Moonshot, a bold plan to test 10 million people each. coronavirus day and get life back to normal by winter.
But on Tuesday, the reality of terrestrial life in a pandemic reasserted itself: Before a second wave of the virus had even crested, raw samples swept British labs and people desperately waited for tests, as schools and businesses reopened. country remained dormant. balance.
The country is unable to meet current demand, yet the prime minister expects, within a few months, to conduct more than 40 times more tests than it does now.
Britain has suffered more coronavirus-related deaths – 57,528, according to official documents compiled from death certificates – than any other nation in Europe. But when the new cases dropped out over the summer, Mr. Johnson’s government created incentives for people to dine out, urged them to return to their offices, and hesitated to request face masks before ordering them in mid-July for enclosed spaces.
Crucially, experts said, the government failed to prepare the country’s labs for an inevitable surge in test demand as schools reopened in September and daily cough and cold cases increased along with the coronavirus. New confirmed cases in Britain, which had dropped below 600 per day in early July, reached around 3,000 per day.
The testing program is now so saturated that it has started sending excess samples to laboratories in Italy and Germany. At one point on Monday, people in England’s 10 riskiest coronavirus hotspots – including areas of Manchester, the second largest city – were unable to book tests. Some people were told they would have to travel 200 miles to take the test.
The program recently hit a backlog of 185,000 swabs, London’s Sunday Times reported this weekend. And after urging people in July to get tested regardless of any symptoms, the Conservative government is now reported to be making plans to restrict access to testing in an effort to address what officials have described as “frivolous demands” .
The British opposition Labor Party caught the headache on Tuesday, hitting Matt Hancock, the British secretary of state for health, during an appearance in the House of Commons.
“The secretary of state is losing control of this virus,” Jonathan Ashworth, Labor’s leading health lawmaker, said of Hancock. “He needs to fix the tests now.”
Mr. Hancock acknowledged “operational challenges” in the testing system that, he said, could take weeks to resolve, although he blamed most of the blame on test seekers who did not exhibit coronavirus symptoms.
Mr. Johnson has strayed over and over again during his political career from the smoldering ruins of failed moon shots. His rosy attitude did not fade when the coronavirus landed in Britain this year, despite the pandemic continually proving him wrong.
In mid-March, he promised to “turn the tide” on the virus within 12 weeks. His government at first downplayed the need for large-scale virus testing, challenging experts, and instead invested in untested antibody tests – which, as it turned out, didn’t work.
After Mr. Johnson’s government turned the tide on viral testing and pledged to test 100,000 people a day by May 1, that target put a strain on public labs that were left to scrape for supplies. they needed to meet demand. It took nearly another four months, until the end of August, to push the figure above 200,000 tests in one day.
In July, it launched a “more meaningful return to normal” by Christmas. His promise to build a “world-beating” contact tracing program remains unfulfilled; many contact detectors have spent the first few days of their use watching Netflix.
However, defying warnings from a key government adviser, Mr. Johnson set his new goal last week for a high-speed diagnostic program that could test 10 million Britons a day, or every person in the day by early 2021. country once a week. Documents obtained by The BMJ, a medical journal, mentioned a price tag of 100 billion pounds, or $ 129 billion, and acknowledged that the technology to process so many tests so quickly doesn’t exist.
The government adviser who warned against the plan, Sir John Bell, a professor at Oxford University, said in a radio interview that problems with the government’s existing testing program were a result of the demand being underestimated once. that the students returned to class this month.
“What was underestimated was the speed with which the second wave would arrive, but also the pressure exerted on the system by children returning to school and the test requests associated with that, and more and more people around,” he said. said. “So, I think they are definitely around the curve in terms of getting the necessary tests for what we need today.”
In addition to the increased demand, some officials have also suggested that a shortage of personnel and reagents – the chemical ingredients used in the tests – could be contributing to the crisis.
Shortages have spread to schools, where students returned to class earlier in the month, highlighting the dangers of sending children back to class without a strong testing program in place.
Teachers said early-term headaches and runny noses started to spread almost immediately, but there was no way to know if they were a sign of something worse.
A London teacher said that at her school of over 1,000 students, administrators had been provided with fewer than 10 self-administered coronavirus test kits. They told the teachers they were reserved for emergencies, he said.
A teacher in South West England who encountered coronavirus symptoms this weekend said he faced several days out of class after efforts to schedule a test for the virus failed. His school managed to organize a trip over an hour, he said, and the results are expected to take two to three days.
Lack of tests is not just a problem in schools. Because they cannot be tested for the virus in time, some patients have had to cancel scheduled operations at the last minute, doctors said.
Even primary care physicians – the usual refuge for families dealing with colds and flu – have not been immune from the difficulties of testing. While hospital doctors have better access to tests, general practitioners generally need to book swabs the same way their patients do.
In a survey conducted on Saturday by the U.K. Doctors’ Association, doctors said they were asked to wait days and walk hundreds of miles for tests.
“This leaves an already extended health service even further,” said Dr. Parmar. “It’s a real affront to the 600 healthcare workers we’ve lost if we don’t learn the lessons on how to do it better, how to care for our healthcare workers and prevent the spread of the virus, and enable testing so that people can effectively isolate.”