The Health Secretary’s promise to dramatically ramp up coronavirus tests to 100,000 a day has been thrown into doubt after NHS leaders told him their targets were “jam tomorrow”.
Health bosses told Matt Hancock on Wednesday that they would not be able to ramp up testing to the required levels without significant help from private and academic laboratories.
Ministers insisted they were on track to hit Mr Hancock’s ambitious target as they unveiled major partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and universities to plug the gap in testing.
The Government has faced heavy criticism in recent weeks as Britain’s mass testing programme continues to lag far behind other nations including Germany and South Korea.
In response, the Health Secretary last week launched a five-pillar strategy to ramp up testing in the UK to 100,000 every day by the end of the month.
However the third pillar – ramping up antibody tests to tell people if they have already had the disease – appeared to collapse as the Government’s head of coronavirus testing revealed that the tests were not now expected to be available before the end of April.
In a frank conference call with health managers, academics and industry leaders, the Health Secretary was told that NHS labs were struggling to meet their targets for antigen tests, which would help combat the spread of infection and allow key frontline workers to perform lifesaving duties and remain safe.
In slides shown during the presentation, seen by The Telegraph, NHS leaders warned they were facing a severe shortage of “consumables” – crucial chemicals and swabs needed to perform the tests.
“Global competition for PCR consumables, including the NHS, has dried up labs’ capacity to source consumables,” the slide said. It added that NHS labs are experiencing “immense frustration at headlines, jam tomorrow and inability to deliver due to supply chain constraints”.
The phrase “jam tomorrow” is derived from Lewis Carroll’s book Alice Through the Looking Glass and refers to promises never fulfilled.
Another NHS slide shown during the presentation read: “Staff have pulled out all the stops to deliver the service. We have the people, we have the platforms to achieve 10k per region target, but not the specific consumables. We need industry to provide us with sufficient laboratory consumables across all our platforms.”
NHS regions have been set a target of 10,000 tests a day to help hit the national 100,000 figure. However, graphs shown during the presentation revealed that, without significant help from the private sector, NHS labs in the south-east are projected to perform only 2,480 tests a day by the end of the month.
Department of Health figures showed that 14,682 tests were conducted nationwide on April 7, slightly more than the 14,006 conducted the day before.
Asked on Tuesday who would “carry the can” if the target were missed, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, stressed that it was Mr Hancock’s target.
Health minister Edward Argar said on Wednesday that Mr Hancock is “determined that we are going to meet that target”, adding: “He knows how important it is – he’s committed to it, as is the whole Government. We are working flat out to make sure we meet that target.”
During Wednesday’s conference call, industry leaders and universities indicated their willingness to help. An official call to action for private laboratories to offer their facilities and crucial reagents will be launched on Thursday.
It was also announced that a new coronavirus testing laboratory is to be set up at Cambridge University in collaboration with pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline which aims to process 30,000 tests per day.
The Government said the firms are exploring “alternative chemical reagents” for test kits in order to help overcome current supply shortages. But the university’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, told BBC that the facility may not be fully operational until May – after Mr Hancock’s target date.
A so-called super lab has already been opened in Milton Keynes in partnership with the US life sciences company Thermo Fisher, with two more planned to open in the coming days.
The Francis Crick Institute is also planning to open a major testing facility in partnership with University College London Hospitals.
But Sir Paul Nurse, director and chief executive at the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Obviously we all have to work together to try to achieve what has to be achieved, but 100,000 is a stretch, though. It is a stretch.
“The practices that are suitable for peacetime are not always suitable for wartime – and we are in war at the moment.”
On antibody testing, the Department of Health said a UK Rapid Test Consortium (UK-RTC) including Oxford University, Abingdon Health, BBI Solutions and CIGA Healthcare has launched “in order to design and develop a new antibody test” that is home-grown.
But Professor John Newton, the Government’s head of coronavirus testing, admitted that the tests would now not be available until May at least after every sample sent to Public Health England was found to be unreliable. Last month, PHE suggested the fingerprick tests would be on shop shelves within days.
“Although the target as the Secretary of State set it was not specific to different types of test, we do not expect to be doing antibody tests by the end of April,” Prof Newton said.
It came after The Telegraph spoke to experts who claimed a lack of blood samples from patients who have suffered Covid-19 was hampering efforts to validate antibody tests
Public Health England (PHE) currently only has a small number of positive blood samples for screening antibody tests to see whether they work, while the Department of Health is trying to create a blood bank.
Part of the issue, according to PHE, is that it takes time for an immune response to develop, and therefore blood from those who have suffered Covid-19 is only just reaching the maturity needed for use in antibody tests.
But some private labs said their efforts to validate tests that can then be used by frontline staff and the wider public are being hampered by PHE not sharing its samples.
Professor Karol Sikora, the founder of Rutherford Cancer Centres, said he and a colleague had tried to obtain samples from PHE to validate some tests from Korea which have the potential for widespread public use – but he added that there had been no response to numerous inquiries.
“I have got 1,000 kits arriving from Korea tomorrow,” he said. “We want to test 50 of them in the lab, but the bottom line is none of us can do anything until we get samples from people who have recovered from coronavirus.
“But we’ve had no response from PHE, nobody appears to be in charge, they don’t answer the phone, they don’t answer emails. PHE are a very sleepy organisation, and they’ve never had to deal with anything like this before.”
Prof Sikora said officials had also failed to communicate with companies on what the exact threshold is for a “good test”. He also said he had no faith that the results would be accepted even if a good test was found. “There are lots of labs in a similar situation – maybe 50 or 100 around the country,” he said.
Health Minister Lord Bethell said: “We are rapidly scaling up the national effort to boost testing capacity for coronavirus to protect the vulnerable, support our NHS and, ultimately, save lives.
“I am proud that we have already had an impressive response from companies of different scales and from different sectors coming forward with a commitment to work together, share expertise and resources to establish a large British diagnostics industry which can help us achieve 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.”