Coronavirus: UK medical officials 'snubbed offers from top institutions to boost testing'

Andy Wells
Freelance Writer
A Tennessee National Guard member hands off a test swab at a coronavirus assessments and tests driveup site in Tennessee. (AP)

Medical officials have ignored offers of help from some of the UK's leading scientific institutions to boost Britain's rate of coronavirus testing, it has been claimed.

Officials have repeatedly ignored offers from the likes of Oxford University and the renowned Francis Crick Institute involving hundreds of testing machines and trained personnel, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Nations including Germany, South Korea and Australia have already tested hundreds of thousands of their citizens – leaving Britain lagging behind.

Government figures show that fewer than 10,000 tests per day are currently being carried out, compared with 70,000 per day in Germany.

The number of daily tests fell on Tuesday to 8,240, for a total of 143,186 tests since the end of February, the government said.

The Telegraph said senior health sources warned that the window for the UK to launch a successful mass community testing programme may already have been lost.

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Professor Matthew Freeman, head of Oxford's Dunn School of Pathology, one of Britain's leading disease research centres, told the paper his repeated offers to provide dozens of specialised machines and expert staff had been largely ignored by Public Health England (PHE).

He said his department had 119 of the crucial PCR machines, or thermal cyclers, used to identify tell-tale genetic signs of coronavirus, but that health officials had accepted only one.

Prof Freeman said some two weeks ago PHE had issued a request for "a very specific model" of PCR machine. His department had one, which was duly collected, but he added: "We have another 118 that can broadly do the same job, but they don't appear to be part of PHE's plans.”

Hundreds of specialist workers and trained graduate students were poised to help increase testing, he said, but despite initial signs of enthusiasm he had heard nothing more from PHE.

"We're clearly not doing as well as we could be doing as a nation when it comes to testing, and therefore people like us feel a bit frustrated," he told the paper.

The Francis Crick Institute, a world-leading biomedical research centre based in London, has given five PCR machines to PHE so far, but is understood to have dozens more.

A spokesman told the paper no firm word had come from PHE as to whether any further machines or expertise would be required.

"We have hundreds of scientists with different areas of expertise ready and willing to step in," the spokesman was quoted as saying.

The Telegraph said other institutions across Britain were understood to have had similar offers of help rejected by PHE.

PHE offered a defence of its response to the outbreak to the paper, saying it had rapidly developed, validated and delivered an accurate test that had spread to 12 different sites in England.

Its spokesman said this represented "the fastest deployment of a novel test to PHE and NHS labs in recent history, including in the swine flu pandemic".

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