As Second Wave Builds, U.K. Enters New Coronavirus Testing Crisis

As Second Wave Builds, U.K. Enters New Coronavirus Testing Crisis


LONDON — With Britons fretting last week that a new six-person limit on gatherings would effectively cancel Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled what he called Operation Moonshot, an audacious plan to test 10 million people every day for the coronavirus and restore life to normal by winter.

But by Tuesday, the reality of earthbound life in a pandemic reasserted itself: Before a second wave of the virus had even crested, unprocessed samples overwhelmed Britain’s labs and people waited in desperation for tests, while the reopening of the country’s schools and businesses hung in the balance.

The country cannot meet the current demand, yet the prime minister plans, within a few months, to conduct more than 40 times as much testing as it does now.

“We are sleepwalking into a second surge of the pandemic without really having learned the lessons from the first,” said Dr. Rinesh Parmar, an anesthesiologist and the chairman of The Doctors’ Association U.K., an advocacy and professional group. “We are set for a perfect storm of problems heading into the winter.”

Britain has suffered more coronavirus-related deaths — 57,528, according to official records compiled from death certificates — than any other nation in Europe. But as new cases receded over the summer, Mr. Johnson’s government created incentives for people to dine out, urged them to return to their offices and dithered over whether to require face masks before mandating them in mid-July for enclosed spaces.

Crucially, experts said, the government also failed to prepare the country’s labs for an inevitable spike in demand for tests as schools reopened in September and cases of everyday coughs and colds surged along with the coronavirus. Confirmed new cases in Britain, which had fallen below 600 a day in early July, have reached about 3,000 a day.

The testing program is now so saturated that it has started sending overflow samples to labs in Italy and Germany. At one point on Monday, people in England’s 10 riskiest coronavirus hot spots — including areas of Manchester, the second largest city — were unable to book tests. Some people were told they would have to travel 200 miles to get tested.

The program recently reached a backlog of 185,000 swabs, The Sunday Times of London reported this weekend. And after urging people in July to get tested regardless of any symptoms, the Conservative government is now reported to be drawing up plans to restrict access to testing, in an attempt to deal with what officials described as “frivolous demands.”

Britain’s opposition Labour Party seized on the difficulties on Tuesday, barraging Matt Hancock, Britain’s secretary of state for health, at an appearance in the House of Commons.

Still, defying the warnings of a key government adviser, Mr. Johnson set out his new target last week for a high-speed diagnostic program that by early 2021 could test 10 million Britons a day, or every person in the country once a week. Documents obtained by The BMJ, a medical journal, mentioned a price tag of 100 billion pounds, or $129 billion, and acknowledged that the technology to process 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 testing program were a result of underestimating demand once 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 from children returning to school and the testing demands associated with that, and people increasingly out and about,” he said. “So, I think they are definitely behind the curve in terms of getting the necessary tests for what we need today.”

Beyond the uptick in demand, some officials have also suggested that shortages of staff and reagents, the chemical ingredients used in tests, may be contributing to the crisis.

The shortages have rippled through schools, where students returned to classes at the beginning of the month, highlighting the dangers of sending children back to classrooms without a strong testing program in place.

Teachers said that start-of-term headaches and sniffles began to spread almost immediately, but there was little way of knowing if they were a sign of something worse.



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