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Britain sees highest daily rise yet in coronavirus deaths

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government was under fire Wednesday for failing to keep its promise to increase the amount of testing being done for COVID-19, even as the country saw its biggest rise yet in deaths among people with the virus, to 2,352.

Lancet editor, Labour Party criticize government with respect to testing numbers, confusion

National Health Service staff wait in their cars to take a coronavirus test at a drive-thru centre in north London on Wednesday. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson developed a cough and fever, he got a test for the novel coronavirus. Most other Britons won't be offered one.

Johnson's Conservative government was under fire Wednesday for failing to keep its promise to increase the amount of testing being done for COVID-19, even as the country saw its biggest rise yet in deaths among people with the virus, 563. Overall, 2,352 Britons have died in the pandemic.

The issue has become an incipient political crisis for Johnson, who has mild symptoms and is working from isolation in the prime minister's Downing Street apartment.

Richard Horton, editor of medical journal The Lancet, said Britain's handling of the COVID-19 crisis was "the most serious science policy failure in a generation."

In a tweet, he noted that England's deputy chief medical officer said last week that "'there comes a point in a pandemic where that [testing] is not an appropriate intervention.'"

Horton went on: "Now [testing is] a priority. Public message: utter confusion."

Like some other countries, the U.K. has restricted testing to hospitalized patients, leaving people with milder symptoms unsure whether they have had the virus. Many scientists say wider testing — especially of health-care staff — would allow medics who are off work with symptoms to return if they are negative, and would give a better picture of how the virus spreads.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick conceded Wednesday that "we do need to go further and we need to do that faster."

The U.K. initially performed about 5,000 tests a day, but the government promised to increase that number to 10,000 by the end of last week and to 25,000 by mid-April. The target has not been met, with 8,630 tests carried out Monday, the last day for which figures are available.

Lockdown occurred later than many countries

Critics contrast the U.K. with Germany, which reacted quickly as reports of the respiratory virus emerged from China at the end of last year. It began producing a test for COVID-19 in January, almost a month before U.K. health authorities produced their own test. Germany now has the capacity to do 500,000 tests a week.

Jenrick said the U.K.'s test tally should hit 15,000 a day "within a couple of days" and 25,000 a day in a couple of weeks. But progress has been agonizingly slow.

The government says testing front-line health-care workers is a priority — however, only 2,000 have been tested so far, from a National Health Service workforce of more than one million.

A volunteer packs items for food packages at the launch of Enfield Council's supply centre in Enfield, north London, on Wednesday. The initiative is an attempt to help those confined to their homes during the lockdown due to the spread of coronavirus. (Aaron Chown/PA/The Associated Press)

British officials blame shortages of swabs to take samples and of chemicals known as reagents, which are needed to perform the tests.

"There is a massive demand for raw materials and commercial kits — this is not unique to the U.K. — and many places no longer have stock of essential reagents," said Stephen Baker, professor of molecular microbiology at the University of Cambridge.

British officials defend their record at developing and deploying a test for COVID-19. They also say that while too little testing is a weakness, so is too much, because testing vast numbers of healthy people would be wasteful.

That point was echoed by World Health Organization emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan, who said a ratio of 10 negative tests to one positive was "a general benchmark of a system that's doing enough testing to pick up all cases."

In Britain, about 20 per cent of tests have been positive, suggesting a substantial number of cases are being missed.

Critics of the British government say the testing debacle is typical of its sluggish and complacent response to the pandemic.

The U.K. was slower than many European countries to implement measures such as closing schools, bars and restaurants and telling people to stay home to impede transmission of the virus. A nationwide lockdown was imposed just over a week ago.

After a decade of public spending cuts by Conservative governments, the National Health Service and other public health bodies have very little spare capacity.

Jonathan Ashworth, health spokesperson for the main opposition Labour Party, said health workers "are rightly asking if we've left it too late to buy the kits and chemicals we need, or whether our lab capacity is too overstretched after years of tight budgets."

"NHS staff and carers on the front line who need these tests urgently deserve an immediate explanation from the government as to what's going on."

Meanwhile, Prince Charles, who recently announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, issued a video message as he emerged from a period of self-isolation. The 71-year-old heir to the British throne thanked health workers and said he is thinking of all the people who have been impacted by the outbreak. 

"At such an unprecedented and anxious time in all our lives, my wife and I are thinking particularly of all those who have lost their loved ones in such very difficult and abnormal circumstances, and of those having to endure sickness, isolation and loneliness," Charles said.

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