UK vows to boost coronavirus testing after criticism, as officials release guidance on who to save first

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The UK will test 100,000 people per day for coronavirus by the end of this month, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced Thursday. (FILE PHOTO)

(CNN) — The UK will test 100,000 people per day for coronavirus by the end of this month, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced Thursday.

"That is the goal and I am determined we will get there," said Hancock, who had been self-isolating for seven days with coronavirus.

But the new pledge came before the UK has even met its current target of 25,000 tests per day.

Hancock set out the government's order of priority for testing people for coronavirus: Patients first, expanding to NHS (National Health Service) staff and their families, critical key workers third and "over time we will expand to community."

He said the government intends to reach the target through a five-pillar testing strategy:

1. Swab testing in Public Health England labs and within the NHS in hospitals.

2. Partnerships with universities, research institutes and companies like Amazon and Boots to build new labs and testing sites across the country, to be initially used solely for frontline NHS staff and their families.

3. Blood tests designed to tell if people have had the virus and are now immune. These could potentially be done at home with a finger prick, Hancock said. The government is currently working with nine companies.

4. Surveys to find out what proportion of the population already had the virus, using an antibody test. There is capacity for 3,500 of these tests a week.

5. Pharmaceutical giants will assist in building a British diagnostics industry at scale.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to boost the country's coronavirus testing efforts after facing a barrage of criticism for screening fewer people than other nations at a similar stage of the epidemic.

The number of deaths linked to confirmed cases of the coronavirus reached a new UK high on Wednesday, the latest figures available, with 569 deaths recorded in a day, taking the total to 2,921.

Those deaths came as the British Medical Association (BMA) released new ethics guidelines for doctors that mean older patients with a low chance of survival could have life-saving ventilators removed so the machines can be given to healthier patients.

Newspaper headlines on Thursday blasted the government's failure to test more, even in typically loyal British media outlets. "Why mass testing must be our No. 1 priority — and why we lag behind the rest of the world," said the Telegraph's online edition.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister told reporters Thursday that a total of 10,412 tests were carried out across the country on Tuesday.

A total of 2,800 NHS workers have now been tested at drive-in testing facilities, Downing Street said.

"We acknowledge that more needs to be done in relation to testing. We need to be testing more people and we need to be making progress very quickly," the spokesman said.

Many health workers are self-isolating after showing possible symptoms of the coronavirus but could return to work sooner if testing showed they were not infected.

The latest figures come eight days after Johnson asserted that the UK was "massively ramping up" its nationwide testing program, and would continue to increase the number of tests carried out each week. The Prime Minister, who is himself in self-isolation after testing positive for the virus, posted a video to Twitter on Wednesday evening in which he lamented a "sad, sad day" in reference to the previous day's death toll of 563.

He stressed his efforts to increase the country's testing capacity, as well as listing the measures already put in place to deal with the pandemic and urging people to respect the restrictions currently in place.

"I want to say a special word about testing, because it is so important, and as I have said for weeks and weeks, this is the way through," Johnson said. "This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end."

Shortage fears

Earlier in the day, Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of Public Health England, told Sky News that the UK was aiming to reach 25,000 tests a day by the middle of April.

Germany's leading virologist Christian Drosten said last Thursday that his country was carrying out 500,000 tests a week.

Authorities in Spain have said they are conducting between 15,000 and 20,000 tests a day.

Meanwhile, Italy has carried out more than 540,000 coronavirus tests in total, according to its Civil Protection agency. More than 34,000 were conducted nationwide on Wednesday, the agency said.

In France, which has focused testing on those seriously ill in hospital and health workers, the number of tests carried out "averages 9,000 daily," the National Health Agency told CNN. A health minister said Tuesday that France had the capacity to conduct 20,000 tests daily.

Cosford said Public Health England was in contact with its peers in Germany as the UK seeks to step up its coronavirus testing capacity.

"We're in constant discussions with colleagues in Germany — and other countries — around what they're doing, where their sources are coming from, what their supply system is. Of course we need to build this further," Cosford said

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned last Wednesday that the UK did not have "sufficient testing" capabilities to identify cases, telling reporters that there was a "global shortage" of available tests.

UK health workers have also voiced concerns that personal protective equipment and some medical supplies are running low.

The government is "confident" that enough protective equipment is now reaching the medical front lines, Downing Street said Thursday.

In a positive development, a spin-off company of the Britain's prestigious University of Cambridge has developed a "rapid diagnostic test for Covid-19" which can deliver a result in "less than 90 minutes," the university said in a statement Thursday.

"The SAMBA II machines, developed by Diagnostics for the Real World, provide a simple and accurate system for the diagnosis of Covid-19 infection," the statement said. A Cambridge hospital expects to receive the first 10 machines this week, it added.

Older, sicker patients could lose ventilators

The BMA said its new guidance had been prepared for doctors who will need to make "grave decisions" about who should receive "scarce lifesaving resources" if the country's health system is overwhelmed by coronavirus cases.

"As such, some of the most unwell patients may be denied access to treatment such as intensive care or artificial ventilation," the BMA's ethics guidance note states.

"This will inevitably be indirectly discriminatory against both the elderly and those with long-term health conditions, with the latter being denied access to life-saving treatment as a result of their pre-existing health problems."

It says imposing an age cut-off would be illegal, but adds that older patients with pre-existing respiratory problems would have a "very high chance of dying despite intensive care," and are therefore lower priority for admission.

The UK government has previously warned the country's health system could be overwhelmed if strict social distancing measures are not followed.

A converted convention center in London is due to start operating this week as a massive field hospital for coronavirus cases and could soon be the biggest intensive care unit in the country.

A temporary mortuary is also being built in east London as the death toll from coronavirus in the city continues to grow.

This story was first published on CNN.com "UK vows to boost coronavirus testing after criticism, as officials release guidance on who to save first"