National plan for testing needed

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Testing everybody in a northern Italian village of 3,000 people saw those with Covid-19 fall 90% within ten days. People testing positive, with or without symptoms, were isolated so they didn’t infect others. This shows why testing is vital.

The Tory government’s failure to test at the scale needed causes many severe illnesses and deaths.

Health and care workers urgently need weekly testing. Those with mild symptoms, but without Covid, could work. Covid carriers without symptoms isolate, protecting patients and colleagues.

When China’s first cases were identified in late December, pandemic contingency plans here should have been opened. They should have rolled into action after Britain’s first case was confirmed in late January.

On 19 April, the number of tests performed was still only 5,522 per million people (compared to Germany’s 20,786). South Korea has over 600 mobile test centres. The UK has 22, meaning two hour drives for many.

Health secretary Matt Hancock wrings his hands and says: “We have the best scientific labs in the world but we did not have the scale. My German counterpart for instance could call upon 100 testing labs ready and waiting when the crisis struck.”

Not until the end of March did the government announce it would recruit laboratories from universities, research institutes and private companies. Why not early February?

The Institute of Biomedical Science, representing 17,000 NHS laboratory workers, says the problem is not insufficient labs but swabs, plastic tubes and chemicals. There is a global shortage. The government’s early complacency left them at the back of the queue.

Years of austerity cuts mean NHS labs rely on a few non-domestic suppliers, such as giant corporation Roche. ‘Efficient’ in normal times, but these are not normal times! Most universities can make the chemicals required.

Julian Peto, a respected epidemiologist, estimates there are enough machines in the UK for ten million daily tests – everybody weekly – obtaining supplies directly from manufacturers rather than clinical test companies.

A national plan is needed, drawn up by NHS, university, biotechnology and other workers through their trade unions, to mobilise all the resources needed for a huge increase in testing. Test, isolate and contact trace to exit lockdown until vaccines are widely available!

Jon Dale, secretary Unite union Nottinghamshire NHS branch (personal capacity)