Mass testing for virus starts with NHS staff and carers – Jeremy Hunt

How can the next phase of Covid-19 testing be speeded up?How can the next phase of Covid-19 testing be speeded up?
How can the next phase of Covid-19 testing be speeded up?
AS a country, we are in a transformed position because of recent changes to our response to the pandemic.

We are now contacting around three quarters of the people we identify as testing positive for coronavirus and 90 per cent of their contacts are being asked to isolate.

That is the basis of South Korean test and trace, and it is incredibly important that we are in that position.

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The challenge we now have is that we do not know where about two thirds of new infections are happening, so we cannot feed them into the test and trace process.

Jeremy Hunt is chair of Parliament's Health and Social Care Committee.Jeremy Hunt is chair of Parliament's Health and Social Care Committee.
Jeremy Hunt is chair of Parliament's Health and Social Care Committee.

That is a challenge, because Sage’s advice is that we ask about 80 per cent of potential coronavirus contacts to isolate, and we are still some way off that.

In fact, we are contacting about 700 people a day to get their contacts and there are about 2,500 daily new infections.

If we do the maths, assuming that each person with coronavirus has about nine contacts, which is the current figure, that is up to a quarter of million people since the process started whom we would have liked to have asked to isolate, but we have not been able to do so.

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How do we meet that challenge? Well, the answer is to do something that the Government have already shown they are very good at, which is a dramatic ​expansion of testing capacity.

The Government's approach to Covid-9 testing remains open to scrutiny.The Government's approach to Covid-9 testing remains open to scrutiny.
The Government's approach to Covid-9 testing remains open to scrutiny.

The city of Beijing has about a third of the population of the United Kingdom, but its daily testing capacity is nearly double ours at around 400,000 a day, and many of those tests come back within 24 hours.

We look forward to the triumphant announcement next week that we are meeting the Prime Minister’s target for all non-postal tests to come back within 24 hours by the end of this month, because speed matters.

If we expand our testing capacity dramatically, we can use it, for example, to deal with localised outbreaks. We can use it at airports instead of the quarantine policy, by testing people on arrival. We can use it for high-risk groups such as taxi drivers, who are particularly at risk.

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Most of all, we can use it for our frontline health and care staff. If we had Beijing levels of testing in this country, we would, in addition to the testing we are currently doing, be able to test every NHS frontline worker once a week. If we got it up another 200,000, we would be able to test every frontline care worker once a week as well.

Why does that matter? It matters because, according to the evidence submitted to Sage on April 20, up to 25 per cent of the coronavirus patients in our hospitals caught coronavirus in the hospital.

When we add on the people who catch their infection in care homes, what we end up with is that about a third of new infections are likely to be in healthcare settings – so-called nosocomial infections, which is one of the many new words we have learned over the course of this crisis.

Weekly testing matters and is so important not only because, with around a third of new infections happening in healthcare settings, it will save a lot of patients’ lives ​and save the lives of frontline healthcare workers, but because it is the critical thing stopping the NHS getting back to its normal levels of activity.

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Last week, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons talked about the mountainous backlog we face in, for example, orthopaedic surgery.

He said that the thing holding the NHS back is the time it is taking to set up what he calls “Covid-lite” facilities, where there is a low risk of people having coronavirus. That is why testing is essential.

I do not want to take up any more time than I need to, but I want to make this point. Korea, Taiwan and Germany are all held up as examples of places that have been particularly effective in tackling coronavirus.

All of them introduced test and trace, but they all did it when the virus was at an earlier stage with much lower levels of community transmission.

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If we want test and trace to be effective here, we need to introduce mass testing, starting with health and care staff, and we must not delay.

JEREMY Hunt is the current chair of Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee. He spoke in the Commons in a debate entitled Testing of NHS and Social Care Staff – this is an edited version.

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