LONDON – As the British last week worried that a new six-person ban on gatherings would effectively cancel Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled what he called Operation Moonshot, a bold plan to test 10 million people every day for coronavirus and restore life to normal in winter.
But on Tuesday, the reality of terrestrial life in a pandemic confirmed itself: Before another wave of the virus had even crested, untreated samples overwhelmed Britain’s laboratories and people waited desperately for tests while the reopening of the country’s schools and businesses hung in the balance.
“We are sleeping on another wave of the pandemic without really having learned the lessons from the first,” said Dr. Rinesh Parmar, an anesthetist and chair of The Doctors’ Association UK, a legal and professional group. “We are ready for a perfect storm of trouble heading into winter.”
The UK has slightly more coronavirus-related deaths – 57,528 according to official records from death certificates – than any other nation in Europe. But as new cases were withdrawn over the summer, Mr Johnson’s government created incentives for people to eat out, urging them to return to their offices and switching to requiring face masks before mandating them in the middle. of July to closed spaces.
Crucially, experts said, the government was also unable to prepare the country’s laboratories for an inevitable increase in demand for tests when schools reopened in September and cases of everyday coughs and colds rose alongside coronavirus. Confirmed new cases in the UK, which had fallen below 600 a day in early July, have reached around 3,000 a day.
The test program is now so saturated that it has started sending overflow samples to laboratories in Italy and Germany. At one point on Monday, people in England’s 10 most risky coronavirus hotspots – including areas in Manchester, the second largest city – were unable to book tests. Some people were told that they had to travel 200 miles to be tested.
The program recently reached a backlog of 185,000 cotton swabs, The Sunday Times in London reported over the weekend. And after urging people in July to be tested regardless of any symptoms, the Conservative government is now reportedly drawing up plans to restrict access to testing in an attempt to deal with what officials describe as “junk claims.”
Britain’s opposition party, the Labor Party, seized on Tuesday and blocked Matt Hancock, Britain’s foreign secretary for health, from appearing in the House of Commons.
“The Secretary of State is losing control of this virus,” said Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s leading health care lawmaker. Hancock. “He has to fix the test now.”
Sir. Hancock acknowledged “operational challenges” in the test system, which he said could take weeks to resolve, even as he placed most of the blame on people seeking tests who had no coronavirus symptoms.
Mr. Johnson has walked again and again throughout his political career from the smoldering ruins of failed moon shots. His rosy attitude did not disappear when the coronavirus landed in the UK this year, despite the fact that the pandemic kept showing him wrong.
In mid-March, he promised to “turn the tide” to the virus within 12 weeks. His government first downplayed the need for massive-scale virus testing, defied the experts and instead invested in untested antibody tests – which, as it turned out, did not work.
After the Johnson government reversed the course of viral testing and promised to test 100,000 people a day before May 1, this target placed such a heavy burden on public laboratories that they were left to scrape for the supplies they needed. to meet demand. It took almost four more months, until the end of August, to push the number over 200,000 tests in one day.
In July, he floated a “more marked return to normality” before Christmas. His promise to set up a “world-beating” contact tracking program is still unfinished; many contact trackers spent the early days of their employment on Netflix.
Contrary to the warnings of a key government adviser, Mr Johnson set his new goal last week for a high-speed diagnostic program that in early 2021 could test 10 million Britons a day or every person in the country once a week. Documents obtained by BMJ, a medical journal, mentioned a price of 100 billion pounds or 129 billion dollars and recognized that the technology to treat so many tests so quickly does not exist.
The government adviser who warned against the plan, Sir John Bell, a professor at the University of Oxford, said in a radio interview that the problems with the government’s existing test program were a result of underestimated demand when students returned to class this month.
“What has been underestimated was the speed at which the second wave would arrive, but also the pressure put on the system by children returning to school, and the test requirements associated with it, and people increasingly out and around, ”he said. “So I think they are definitely behind the curve in terms of getting the necessary tests for what we need today.”
In addition to the demand increase, some officials have also suggested that lack of staff and reagents, the chemical ingredients used in testing, may be contributing to the crisis.
The shortage has curled through schools where students returned to classes at the beginning of the month, underscoring the dangers of sending children back to classrooms without a strong test program in place.
Teachers said headaches and sniffles began to spread almost instantly, but there was little way to know if they were signs of anything worse.
A teacher in London said administrators at her school with more than 1,000 students had received fewer than 10 self-administered coronavirus test kits. They told teachers they were reserved for emergencies, she said.
A teacher in the south-west of England who came up with symptoms of coronavirus over the weekend said he was facing several days out of the classroom after efforts to schedule a test for the virus failed. His school managed to help arrange more than an hour’s drive away, he said, and the results are expected to take two to three days.
The lack of tests is not only a problem in schools. Because they cannot be tested for the virus in time, some patients have had to cancel scheduled surgeries at the last minute, doctors said.
Even GPs – the usual refuge for families dealing with colds and flu – have not been immune to test problems. While hospital physicians have better access to testing, GPs generally need to book swabs the same way their patients do.
In a study by The Doctors’ Association UK on Saturday, doctors described being asked to wait days and travel hundreds of miles for tests.
“It leaves an already stretched health service even more stretched,” said Dr. Parmar. “It is a real violation of the 600 healthcare workers we have lost if we do not learn how to do this better, how to care for our healthcare professionals and prevent the spread of the virus and enable testing so that people can actually isolate.”