Hospitals failed to test staff for coronavirus because they feared having to send too many workers home, when almost half were infected at the peak of the pandemic, MPs have been told.

Professor Sir John Bell, an immunologist and geneticist at the University of Oxford, said the response by the NHS had “not been ethical” and said Britain had been “asleep to the concept that we were going to have a pandemic”.

He made the criticisms after fellow scientist Sir Paul Nurse, an English geneticist, former President of the Royal Society and currently chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, said that “up to 45 per cent” of healthcare workers were infected at the height of the epidemic.

Sir Paul said a lack of testing meant most cases went undetected as many cases were asymptomatic.

Speaking at the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, Sir John said: “As time went on, there still wasn’t a real push to do [screen for coronavirus] healthcare workers.

“There was a suspicion, which I think is probably correct, that NHS institutions and the NHS were avoiding testing their hospital workers because they were afraid they would find the kind of levels that Paul has described, and they would have to send everyone home, and as a result not have a workforce.

“That in my view is not an ethical approach to the problem. You can’t not test people because you’re worried about a human resources issue.”

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