A laboratory spearheading Britain’s coronavirus testing effort only asked people to start applying for jobs there today – despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock claiming the facility opened a week ago.
The National Biosample Centre, in Milton Keynes, has been set aside and repurposed to be able to cope with testing on a mass scale, in order to ensure that frontline NHS staff – and eventually the wider public – can find out if they have the disease.
But it has endured a faltering start, as sources claim no testing has actually taken place and government ministers admit they still do not know when it will be ‘fully operational’.
Officials say swab samples will be sent in from all over the country by Royal Mail and Amazon but the only deliveries made today were from vans carrying floorboards and fire extinguishers.
It comes as another 569 coronavirus deaths have been declared in the UK today, taking the total death toll to 2,921.
The National Biosample Centre, in Milton Keynes, has been set aside and repurposed to be able to cope with testing on a mass scale
But it has endured a faltering start, as sources claim no testing has actually taken place and government ministers admit they still do not know when it will be ‘fully operational’
Officials say swab samples will be sent in from all over the country by Royal Mail and Amazon but the only deliveries made today were from vans carrying floorboards and fire extinguishers. What appears to be refrigerators are left deserted outside
The centre (pictured) was built in 2015 for £24million. Insiders have told MailOnline that the government has not been able to recruit enough lab technicians to get the centre up and running
Last week, Mr Hancock revealed at the daily press conference that the government is ‘ramping up’ testing amid growing criticism that it had lost track of the coronavirus pandemic that has brought the country to a standstill.
‘Our new testing facility in Milton Keynes opens today and we therefore are ramping up of the testing numbers,’ Mr Hancock added.
But despite the government’s boast, it took until today for the Microbiology Society to circulate an urgent appeal for ‘experienced laboratory staff’ at the Milton Keynes site, prompting widespread fears that the facility is not fully functioning because of a desperate shortage of specialist workers.
Insiders have told MailOnline that the government has not been able to recruit enough lab technicians who have expertise in operating PCR machines, that are able to locate the coronavirus gene and establish if somebody is infected or not.
The mass testing debacle took a further twist after Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government contradicted what Mr Hancock said last week and admitted on Radio 4’s Today programme that he did not know if the Milton Keynes site is open.
‘I don’t know precisely when that’s going to be coming on board but obviously everything is coming as quickly as it possibly can,’ he said.
The number of coronavirus tests being done in the UK has been rising but only to around 10,000 per day – and the number of people being tested is about half as high because individuals are tested more than once. The Government is a long way off its 25,000-per-day target
MINISTERS TOLD TO GET A GRIP OF MASS TESTING IN BRITAIN
Ministers have been told to get a grip of mass testing after Britain endured its darkest day so far in the coronavirus epidemic yesterday.
The Government is under pressure for failing to ramp up its testing quickly enough – only 8,240 patients were tested in the last 24 hours.
One British firm which claims it could be supplying more tests to the NHS is selling them to 80 countries abroad, including India and the Middle East.
Novacyt – which has a subsidiary firm based in Southampton – suggested the reason it was unable to supply more kits was a shortage of lab space.
Separately a former director of the World Health Organisation, Professor Anthony Costello, said the Government’s health protection agency had been ‘slow and controlled’ over testing, claiming that 44 labs in the UK were underused.
Meanwhile, Number 10 admitted that the Government target of carrying out 25,000 tests a day may not now be hit until the end of next month.
Ministers had previously implied they would have reached this rate already, while NHS officials said it would be achievable within the next three weeks.
Last night, Michael Gove blamed the fiasco on a ‘critical shortage’ of chemical reagents, crucial substances in test which enable them to detect the virus.
However former health secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed disquiet at the Government’s strategy and called for mass-testing, or so-called ‘community testing’, to help Britain through the outbreak.
One scientific researcher who did not want to be named, told MailOnline: ‘There are some fantastic, experienced laboratory staff all over the country, but the government wants most of the testing done centrally in Milton Keynes and two other locations and this is causing the problem.
‘From what I’ve been told, no testing at all has taken place at Milton Keynes. It can take two weeks to train somebody to operate a PCR machine, but this is time that the country doesn’t have. They need to get the site fully operational as quickly as possible but that’s not happening and it’s costing people their lives.’
The advertisement circulated to members of the Microbiology Society, which comprises scientists and lab specialists, bears the title: ‘COVID-19 testing: calling on you to support our key workers,’ and says that it has been issued ‘on behalf of the UK Government.’
It adds: ‘To increase testing for COVID-19, the Government has significantly expanded its laboratory capacity and staffing. As the testing programme ramps up further, we require additional experienced laboratory staff.’
The National Biosample Centre was built for £24million in 2015 and promised to ‘increase the national capacity for biomedical and clinical research’.
Despite the government claiming that it is open for coronavirus testing, MailOnline detected little evidence of relevant activity at the site.
Aside from the flooring and fire extinguishers, the only other traffic was a DHL van delivering a parcel.
The centre has added a row of bollards to the main entrance and a security guard to check visitors.
In its advertisement, the Microbiology Society has also asked its members to offer their services at labs in Cheshire and Glasgow, but the Milton Keynes site is leading the drive to significantly increase the nation’s testing programme.
The appeal goes on to say: ‘We are particularly interested in individuals who are comfortable working in a PCR environment, and those who can operate liquid handling machines, although more generalist laboratory support is also required.’
There was little activity at the Chessington coronavirus testing site yesterday, which has been set up as a drive-thru for NHS workers who need to get tested
Workers were seen sitting, standing around and stretching at the testing centre in Chessington, south-west London yesterday as the Government was blasted for a lack of testing, especially for NHS staff
Pictured: Stewards organise traffic at a Covid-19 test centre for NHS workers which has opened at Ikea’s store in Wembley, north-west London
CAMBRIDGE TEST ‘98.7% ACCURATE WITHIN 90 MINUTES’ TO BE USED BY NHS
Cambridge University scientists have developed a coronavirus testing machine that can produce results in less than 90 minutes and is being rolled out at NHS hospitals in the city and across the UK.
The company Diagnostics for the Real World, founded at the prestigious university, has invented the portable Samba II machines and had them approved by Public Health England.
Ten of them are being used at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge this week before they are put to use nationwide.
The scientists say the machine is 98.7 per cent accurate.
CEO Helen Lee said: ‘The Samba machine can be placed literally anywhere and operated by anyone with minimum training.’
Nasal and throat swabs must be collected from patients then put into the machines which will scan them for tiny traces of genetic material (RNA) from the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus.
Current tests which work in the same way can take 24 hours or more.
The machines will be used to test healthcare workers as well as other patients suspected of having Covid-19 across the country.
Businessman and philanthropist Sir Chris Hohn is helping make the test more widely available with a £2.3million donation to purchase 100 of the machines for NHS use.
It reveals that the jobs are paid roles which will be offered on temporary contracts and that even applications from those currently employed elsewhere who ‘wish to help’ would be welcome.
The advertisement goes on to warn that only those with ‘no symptoms of COVID-19’ and those living in households where nobody has symptoms would be considered.
‘We unfortunately cannot consider you if you, or anyone in your household, are in a high-risk group (over 70, pregnant, with immune deficiencies or underlying medical conditions),’ it adds.
The Department of Health claimed that the National Biosample Centre is the first of three central hub laboratories for the testing of coronavirus and that it is up and running.
The approach of a more centralised testing regime is intended to ensure checks are conducted properly – but contrasts sharply with the decentralised tactic deployed successfully in Germany, which is carrying out 100,000 tests each day compared to barely 10,000 in the UK.
But the Department of Health refused to reveal to what extent the Milton Keynes site is functioning and how many tests have been carried out there so far or how many lab technicians and other staff currently work at the site.
A spokesman said: ‘Two thousand NHS workers had been tested across five new testing sites and the first of three new central hub laboratories is up and running to process these samples. We plan to open four more testing sites by the end of this week, allowing us to test thousands of key workers this week. This is rapid progress for a new programme set up from scratch a week ago.’
It comes as Boris Johnson is facing demands to summon the Dunkirk spirit and let ‘small ship’ labs start screening for the killer infection. Public Health England has previously insisted all coronavirus tests should be carried out centrally.
The approach is intended to ensure checks are conducted properly – but contrasts sharply with the decentralised tactic deployed successfully in Germany, which is carrying out 100,000 tests each day compared to barely 10,000 in the UK.
Millions of Britons may have already been infected with the life-threatening infection – but Number 10 is completely clueless about the true size of the outbreak because of its highly controversial decision to not carry out mass testing.
Putting a mass testing regime in place is vital to ease the lockdown strangling the economy and threatening millions of jobs, which would allow Britons to go back to their usual lives and not be confined inside their own homes.
The number of new daily cases of the coronavirus remained relatively stable through the last five days of March. Not pictured on this graph, however, are the 4,324 new cases declared yesterday and 4,244 today – both record highs
A member of the public is lifted into the back of an ambulance by paramedics in Euston, London. The capital remains at the centre of the UK’s COVID-19 epidemic
NHS staff were today finally being swabbed for coronavirus at a drive-through facility in Chessington, with queues of cars being waved through by a security guard in hi-vis jacket
GOVERNMENT WILL OUTSOURCE WORK TO ‘LITTLE SHIP’ LABS TO SCALE UP COVID-19 TESTING
Boris Johnson is preparing to overrule control-freak health chiefs today amid warnings ‘time is running out’ to scale up coronavirus testing.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has finally signalled a U-turn on the screening regime, after weeks of insisting on all checks being carried out centrally.
Instead he has issued a plea for the wider science industry to boost capacity – with Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, saying the government must summon the Dunkirk spirit and let ‘small ship’ labs in universities, private companies and research institutes help out.
The previous approach was meant to ensure checks are conducted properly, but the 10,000 per day level achieved so far contrasts sharply with the decentralised tactics deployed successfully in countries like Germany, which is capable of up to 93,000 tests per day. The UK can currently only manage 12,000.
Only around 2,800 NHS staff have been tested at drive-through ‘swab stations’ despite fears tens of thousands are off work unnecessarily. But the Government said many more had been tested at labs elsewhere.
Tests to diagnose people who currently have the virus are viewed as critical for keeping health workers on the frontline, and tracking the outbreak could allow lockdowns to be co-ordinated in ‘hotspots’.
But experts say screening for people who have already had the disease – antibody testing – will be the biggest breakthrough in getting the country back on its feet.
In a video released from his self-isolation in Downing Street last night, Boris Johnson admitted mass testing was the solution to the ‘puzzle’. ‘This is how we will defeat it in the end,’ he said.
The Francis Crick institute today announced it has started testing NHS staff from University College London Hospitals and aims to ramp up to 500 per day by next week and expand to other hospitals in the capital.
Other smaller laboratories say they have volunteered to help with testing, too, among them the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University and Systems Biology Laboratory in Abingdon, which is testing local GP staff already. Cancer Research UK said it is also providing equipment and expert staff to help with testing.
However, there is already a blame game under way within government over the failure to scale up the testing regime – with the PHE insisting it has ‘played our part’.
It comes as another 569 coronavirus deaths have been declared in the UK today, taking the total death toll to 2,921.
The increase makes today the worst day so far in the crisis which is crippling Britain. It is the third day in a row that a new one-day high has been recorded.
A further 4,244 people were diagnosed with the infection in the past 24 hours, pushing the total number of positive tests to 33,718.
This was slightly fewer than the 4,324 new diagnoses yesterday and today’s death toll was just a small increase of six – a glimmer of hope that the lockdown may be working.
The Department of Health statistics mean the UK’s coronavirus death toll has almost quadrupled in six days from just 759 last Friday, March 27.
And the NHS has announced more victims in four days this week (1,693) than in every other day of the outbreak combined up until Sunday, March 29 (1,228).
The true scale of the outbreak is not shown by the Department of Health’s statistics, which cut off at 5pm the day before they are announced.
Because of this, some of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s statistics will be taken into tomorrow’s overall count for the UK.
Combined, each country’s individual death tolls for the day – England (561), Scotland (66), Wales (19) and Northern Ireland (6) – add up to 652.
This takes the real total to 2,977, and individual numbers of positive tests put the patient count at 39,215.
Experts have stressed that fast rising numbers of infections and deaths do not mean that the UK’s lockdown isn’t working.
It is expected to take at least a fortnight to see any impact on official statistics because of how long it takes the virus to make people ill and then for them to recover or die.
People dying in intensive care yesterday, for example, are likely to have caught the virus two, three or even more weeks ago – before the Stay Home campaign began.
If testing rates remain the same, the first thing to drop will be the number of new infections as fewer people become ill in the first place.
After that, the number of people being admitted to hospital will fall, according to cancer doctor Professor Karol Sikora, and then, finally, the number of people dying will come down, too.
The process of catching the infection to dying can take two to three weeks or longer for each patient who succumbs to the illness.
Professor Keith Neal, infectious diseases expert at the University of Nottingham, said: ‘These figures are much in line with expectations.
‘There is continuing evidence that the social distancing measure put in place on the 16th and then 23rd of March could be having an effect in slowing the rate of increase of new infections.
‘The current social distancing needs to be maintained and it is also a reminder that not only the old and those with underlying conditions can get severe disease.’
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.