Under pressure, British PM vows 'massive' increase in coronavirus tests

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to ramp up coronavirus testing after his government faced criticism for being slower than some European peers to roll out mass checks for front-line health workers and the population.

Britain initially took a restrained approach to the outbreak but changed tack after modelling showed a quarter of a million people in the country could die.

Johnson imposed more stringent measures, effectively shuttering the world’s fifth-largest economy, but the government has faced widespread criticism for having too few ventilators and too little testing.

“We’re also massively increasing testing,” Johnson said in a video message from a flat in Downing Street where he is self-isolating after testing positive himself.

“As I have said for weeks and weeks, this is the way through: this is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle, this is how we will defeat it in the end.”

Johnson’s message, posted on Twitter on Wednesday evening, followed pledges from his ministers to accelerate both antibody and antigen testing in days ahead after a slew of sometimes contradictory statements on numbers already checked.

Health Minister Matt Hancock, who has also been in isolation after testing positive, will announce additional testing measures on Thursday, Johnson’s spokesman said.

While Germany has been testing about 500,000 people a week, Britain’s current capacity is about 13,000 a day, a figure the government said it was aiming to double by mid-April.

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The United Kingdom’s coronavirus deaths rose 24 percent to 2,921 as of April 1. As of 0800 GMT on April 2, 163,194 people had been tested of which 33,718 were positive.

More than half of Britons think Johnson’s government was too slow to order a lockdown, an Ipsos MORI poll showed.

“EVERYBODY FRUSTRATED”

Tests are essential for both fighting the virus and nursing the economy back to health after what is expected to be the worst quarter in around a century.

Testing frontline health staff allows those with immunity to return to work while broader testing of the population would allow tens of millions of idled workers back to work.

Showing just how bad coronavirus could be for the economy, British Airways said it was in talks about suspending 32,000 employees, while a survey showed that more than a quarter of British companies had reduced staff levels.

So far, tests have been focused on those suspected to have the virus and admitted to hospital, but the government plans to increase testing of frontline healthcare staff to hundreds of thousands in coming weeks.

“Everybody involved is frustrated that we haven’t got to the position yet that we need to get to,” Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of Public Health England, said of current testing levels.

When asked about the possibility of immunity certificates, Johnson’s spokesman said Britain was watching what other countries were doing.

Ministers have suggested shortages of necessary chemicals were a factor, though the industry has said the necessary reagents are being manufactured and delivered to the National Health Service (NHS).

While the government has been forced on the defensive over mass testing, some scientists have questioned if testing the entire 1.1 million full-time NHS staff is the best use of resources.

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