U.K. Health Workers Decry Low Rate Of Coronavirus Tests For Medical Staff

Apr 2, 2020
Originally published on April 3, 2020 8:09 am

The British government is under fire for only testing a tiny percentage of National Health Service staff as deaths from COVID-19 in the United Kingdom rapidly rise to nearly 3,000.

"Shambles!" reads the headline in the Daily Mirror.

"550,000 NHS staff, only 2,000 tested," roars the Daily Mail.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has COVID-19, pledged the government was going all out to support front-line health care workers.

"We shipped, just in the last couple of weeks, 390 million separate pieces of personal protective equipment and we're also massively increasing testing," Johnson said Wednesday via cellphone video from self-isolation in Downing Street.

But Libby Nolan, a nurse from Wales who has coronavirus symptoms and is waiting on test results, notes that Johnson was tested quickly, unlike the tens of thousands of health care staff who remain untested in self-isolation, unable to work.

"He stood and said, 'We're all in this together,'" Nolan says, referring to the prime minister. "Well, we're not. He's completely failing us."

Responding to public anger, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday that the goal is to carry out 100,000 tests a day in England by the end of this month. Hancock, who has just come out of self-isolation after contracting COVID-19, said the government would increase testing by working with universities and private companies such as Amazon and Boots, a British health and pharmacy chain, to do more swab testing.

As of Thursday, just over 163,000 people have been tested for the virus, in a country with a population of more than 66 million; more than 33,000 have tested positive. The government has struggled to explain why the volume of testing has been so low.

Health care workers say not only has the lack of testing sidelined staff, but it has also prevented those still on the job from working more efficiently and aggressively.

Anna Kahn-Leavitt, a doctor who works in intensive care, says if staff at her London hospital knew they had already been exposed to the virus, they could do the riskier work and spare others.

"If we knew that there were a third of us who'd all had coronavirus already and had an antibody response," Kahn-Leavitt says, "then, of course, we should be the ones to do all the invasive procedures on coronavirus patients."

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In the United Kingdom, more than 500 people are dying every day from COVID-19. Health workers there are continuing to scrounge for protective gear, and few have been tested for the virus. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the latest from Britain.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Libby Nolan works as a nurse in Wales. She's been home sick with symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

LIBBY NOLAN: It's been really rough. I'm extremely nauseous. And my chest is really tight.

LANGFITT: Nolan, who's 56, thinks she may have contracted her illness from an infected colleague who was only wearing basic protective gear because of pressure to preserve supplies.

NOLAN: I'm extremely, extremely angry. It could have been prevented. I'm hearing all kinds of stories about equipment failures. We're not supplied with goggles.

LANGFITT: At least five British health care staff have already died from COVID-19. Nolan's husband, Ev, is an anesthesiologist. She's worried he might not get the level of protective gear he needs.

NOLAN: For many, many people, they've - you know, they don't want to die for this. They just want the proper equipment so that they're safe. For me, I want his face covered. I want him to see grandchildren. Sorry.

LANGFITT: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who's in self-isolation with COVID-19 himself, insists the government is going all out to support health care staff.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We've shipped, just in the last couple of weeks, 397 million separate pieces of personal protective equipment. We're also massively increasing testing. This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it.

LANGFITT: But the U.K. could have had even more protective gear than it does. Despite Brexit, Britain is still eligible to make bulk purchases together with the European Union. But the U.K. didn't seize the opportunity and attributed the mistake to an email mix-up. Politicians in Brussels are skeptical.

PETER LIESE: I don't believe in the story of a missed email. I think it was a political decision.

LANGFITT: Peter Liese is a member of the European Parliament from Germany and a medical doctor.

LIESE: I think there was this fear that it should be embarrassing if we still cooperate because the main story of the Brexit - yes, is of course, we don't need any cooperation. We can do whatever we want without the European Union.

LANGFITT: So far, the government has only tested 2,000 out of more than half a million National Health Service staff. Public health analysts say Johnson's government didn't prioritize testing because it expected mass infection which would lead to so-called herd immunity. When models showed that could result in up to 250,000 deaths, officials abruptly changed strategy and are now playing catch-up. Anna Kahn-Leavitt is an American-born British trained doctor who works in the intensive care.

ANNA KAHN-LEAVITT: They make all these statements about what's happening or going to happen. I see no scaled up testing. I see no testing of frontline staff.

LANGFITT: Lack of testing has forced tens of thousands of health care workers with symptoms to self-isolate at home, starving hospitals of labor. Kahn-Leavitt said that if doctors at her London hospital knew they'd already been exposed to the virus, they could do the riskier work and spare others.

KAHN-LEAVITT: If we knew that there were a third of us who'd all had coronavirus already and had a antibody response left behind, then it would allow us to use different types of oxygenation that we can't use right now because it's too high risk for staff.

LANGFITT: On Thursday, the government vowed to carry out a hundred thousand tests a day in England by the end of this month. So far, about 163,000 people have been tested in a nation of more than 66 million. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.