Coronavirus testing: What is the UK government’s plan?
The UK government wants to significantly increase coronavirus tests to cover NHS workers. At the moment, only patients in hospital are being routinely tested.
The government’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said the UK was trying to buy more testing kits – but warned there was a global bottleneck on purchasing the kits.
The government’s priority is to increase numbers of antigen tests – the ones that tell you if you currently have the virus.
Kits that will allow people to find out at home if they have already had coronavirus are currently being tested, according to Prof Whitty. But they haven’t yet been shown to work.
What is the UK doing?
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.
Currently, 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.
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 confirmed cases.
Not testing more widely means that many people might be self-isolating for no good reason, including NHS workers. Healthcare staff have also raised concerns that they could be spreading the infection unknowingly.
What do I need to know about the coronavirus?
- EASY STEPS: What can I do?
- CONTAINMENT: What it means to self-isolate
- UK LATEST: What’s the UK’s plan and what could happen next?
- MAPS AND CHARTS: Visual guide to the outbreak
- VIDEO: The 20-second hand wash
At the moment, when people are tested to see whether they have the virus, a swab is taken. This is then sent off to a lab to be processed where a machine will look for the virus’s genetic material – which takes time.
Public Health England is working to scale these tests up to over 10,000 a day by the end of March and 25,000 a day by the end of April, by buying in more machines with higher capacities.
This should also allow it to test health workers as well as the sickest patients.
Scientists are also currently evaluating tests which can check for the presence of antibodies (produced by the body to fight off infection) in the blood. This indicates whether someone has had the disease in the past.
This 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 these tests and plans to make them available “very soon”. But first they have to be shown to work.
If approved, people should be able to order test kits from Amazon, according to Prof Sharon Peacock at Public Health England.
“People will be able to order a test or go to Boots to have their finger-prick test done”, she said, and this could be available in the “near future”.
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.
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.
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.