What Exactly Is Going On With Coronavirus Testing?

The UK has been criticised for failing to test more people.

Woman with swab

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in the UK and US, there have been concerns about a seemingly biased testing procedure. A steady stream of influencers and celebrities spoke openly about their negative or positive coronavirus tests – some being tested without even having symptoms - while the majority of people in the UK and even frontline NHS staff were unable to be tested because of mass shortages.

As of today at 9am, 163,194 people have been tested in the UK - of which 33,718 were confirmed positive. The night prior, 5pm on 1 April 2020, of those hospitalised in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus, 2,921 have died.

However, given that the majority of people are unable to be tested – with most tests reserved for seriously ill patients in hospital - experts have warned that the real figures for people with Covid-19 are likely to be much higher. Despite coronavirus being present in the UK for over a month, only now are tests being made available to doctors and nurses who have symptoms or who live with someone who does. As of 9am yesterday morning, only 2,000 of 500,000 NHS frontline staff had been tested.

The issue has become so controversial that Boris Johnson made a statement last night saying the government is trying to ‘massively ramp up testing’, not just for people who have symptoms but for people to know whether they are immune to the virus because they have already had it.

‘I want to say a special world about testing because it is so important and as I’ve said for weeks and weeks, this is the way we will get through this in the end,’ he said. ‘This is the way we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle.’

Professor Paul Cosford of Public Health England (PHE) told the BBC he is unhappy testing isn’t in ‘the position yet we need it to get to’ and stressed that testing would hit the 15,000 per day target ‘imminently’.

Why isn’t the UK testing more?

According to health experts, the UK simply does not have enough resources to mass test people right now. The government's daily target for testing by mid-April is 25,000 however only 8,630 were carried out on Monday.

A number of NHS Trusts have said that they have to limit testing because of a shortage of swabs, testing kits and reagents. One trust in the West Midlands told the BBC it could carry out up to 300 tests per day but because of shortages of reagents and other vital components, only 20 were being carried out each day.

Currently, global demand for components like reagents – which is the substance used to extract the virus’s genetic material – is so high it is difficult to obtain. There are also delays in the number of labs being used to look at the tests, with PHE only using its own eight labs at first – with that now being expanded to 48 in total incorporating NHS labs. In fact, some health experts have criticised the lack of use of smaller labs that could co-ordinate to increase test numbers.

‘We are a lot of little boats and the little boats can be effective,’ said Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick research institute, referring to the effort at Dunkirk to use small boats to evacuate troops from French beaches during World War Two. ‘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.’

However, in some positive turns, a hospital in Cambridge has become the first in the UK to use a new test that diagnoses people quicker – in just 90 minutes as opposed to 24 hours. A small Cambridge technology company adapted it from a HIV test and has since made an effort to make the test more widely available, with businessman Sir Chris Hohn calling it a ‘game-changer’ to help hospitals with the crisis.

Perhaps, with innovation like this taking place daily, testing shortages will soon become one less thing to worry about.

How are celebrities getting tested for coronavirus?

Celebrities around the world have publicly spoken up about being tested in the last few weeks, with Idris Elba and Kris Jenner both saying they had no symptoms but were tested 'to be safe'. While Elba tested positive, Jenner did not. Around the same time, one influencer in the US took her followers along with her to get tested after having symptoms - but it appears she paid for the test privately.

Donald Trump addressed the inequality, saying it's the 'story of life' that rich and famous people have better access to healthcare. But what about in the UK? How are celebrities and politicians getting tested here while the NHS struggles to test its own frontline staff?

Well, reports show that they're likely paying for private testing – one London private clinic, The Private Harley Street Clinic, was condemned earlier this months for offering tests for £375. Accused of profiting from the pandemic, the clinic had reportedly sold thousands of tests at full price, later pausing the test service altogether.

Can you get tested for coronavirus privately?

Now only a few clinics offering private testing remain open: Summerfield Healthcare in the West Midlands is offering one of the cheapest tests with prices ranging from £199 to £299. The Private Harley Street Clinic in London is also selling an antibody test for £150, with their £395 coronavirus test now appearing to have sold out. Qured, also in London, is offering testing packages for £295 per person.

The tests are sent out in the post where you self-swab your throat and nasal passage to then send on to a lab for analysis. It can take several days to get a result back.

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