Boris Johnson has promised again to ramp up capacity to test for coronavirus, amid a blame game over why small private laboratories across the country have not been enlisted in a “Dunkirk” approach.
The prime minister said more testing was “the way through” the crisis, as Whitehall sources described frustration within the government that Public Health England (PHE) had not placed enough emphasis on the issue in recent weeks.
However, PHE rejected criticism that it had been trying to do all the testing itself and was too inflexible in which chemicals were allowed to be used, suggesting it was the responsibility of ministers to find private capacity for more tests.
Prof Paul Cosford, the emeritus medical director of the public health body, said PHE’s role was to “make sure what our labs are doing what they need to do” in terms of testing hospitalised patients with a clinical need, with NHS staff a second priority.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was the Office for Life Sciences – part of the Department of Health under Matt Hancock – that was working on private-sector capacity to test more widely, and this could boost capacity to “at least 100,000 tests a day, hopefully more”.
The UK has been testing fewer than 10,000 people a day, lagging far behind other nations such as Germany, and the prime minister has had to address mounting anger about the situation.
Ministers have consistently failed to explain fully why testing has not been not higher and are facing questions about why they are not planning to roll out mass testing for the virus beyond hospital patients and NHS workers.
There are some signs of a split emerging within the government over whether testing on a huge scale should be the ultimate goal to help suppress the virus and end the lockdown.
Jonathan Van Tam, a deputy chief medical officer at Public Health England, told ITV’s Peston programme on Wednesday that testing was “a bit of a side issue”. He said: “What’s important is the social distancing, stopping people coming into contact, so that the rate of new cases slows.”
But in a video message posted on Twitter on Wednesday evening, Johnson said the UK needed to “massively ramp up” capacity for the two separate tests that show whether people have or have had the disease. He said testing was “how we unlock the coronavirus puzzle”.
Johnson said: “It’s crucial people who do have the disease are able to be tested positive and to take the necessary steps to isolate at home in the way that I am doing and many, many others are doing.”
Private facilities at universities, charities and businesses have offered to help increase the numbers of tests being carried out.
Sir Paul Nurse, the chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, said its research laboratory had been repurposed so it could carry out Covid-19 tests at a rate of 500 a day by next week, rising to 2,000 a day in future.
He told the Today programme: “We hope that we can roll this out to other research institutes so that everybody can contribute.”
Nurse added: “A metaphor here is Dunkirk: we are a lot of little boats and the little boats can be effective. The government has put some big boats – destroyers – in place. That’s a bit more cumbersome to get working and we wish them all the luck to do that, but we little boats can contribute as well.”
He said tests could be turned around in less than 24 hours, which could help get NHS staff back on the frontline.
Scientists have called on health officials to abandon strict production rules that are hampering the introduction of mass testing for coronavirus, after the government admitted that just 2,000 out of half a million frontline NHS staff had been tested to date.
Guidelines drawn up by PHE describe the chemicals and equipment that must be used to test patients. But with some reagents in short supply, senior researchers told the Guardian that the UK must find alternatives to avoid more delays.
Prof Nicola Stonehouse, a molecular virologist at Leeds University, said efforts to scale up testing were being frustrated by over-reliance on specified reagents, enzymes and other chemicals.
“If we could get over this, we could get the testing centres up and running so much faster, and that’s got to be a good thing,” she said. “The NHS have very specific requirements, and there is good reason for that. It makes sure that standards are maintained. But there are alternatives. They need to be optimised and validated, but you can fast-track that if you have enough people. It wouldn’t take a lot of time.”