Health specialists ‘frustrated’ as shortage of materials is a barrier to ramping up coronavirus testing

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Biomedical scientists and NHS laboratory staff have expressed “frustration” at a shortage of resources which is preventing them from carrying out more coronavirus (COVID-19) tests.

On 2 April, health secretary Matt Hancock committed to raising testing numbers to 100,000 a day by the end of April. But health specialists said they were currently “testing to the limit of our materials”, adding that they were ready to increase capacity, but only if given a “reliable supply” of equipment to do so. A spokesperson for the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS) said:

The UK has numerous high-quality accredited laboratories with suitable equipment, with the capability to process over 100,000 tests per day, set up and ready to meet testing targets…

Staffing levels are currently adequate to expand Covid-19 testing. Biomedical scientists across the UK have already been re-trained to carry out testing or free up virology-trained staff to focus on testing.

Currently, England could process up to 25,000 a day, which by May could rise to 100,000, meeting the ambitious target set down by Matt Hancock, all within the NHS. However, there is a material supply issue with a worldwide shortage in reagent kits.

The supply of precision plastics that are used with the reagents are not due to be ready until mid-May.

Currently, around 10,000 tests are being carried out each day. Hancock has unveiled a “five pillar” plan to increase the number to ten times that.

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However, the IBMS urged the government to be cautious when ramping up testing and ensure that supply chains were secured. It added that there was a “very real risk” that hospitals would run out of reagents, leaving patients unable to be tested.

A reagent is a chemical needed to determine if a coronavirus test is positive or negative. Hancock has said the government’s previous commitment – set out by Boris Johnson – to get to 250,000 tests a day “still stands” but put a “very clear timeline” on his goal of 100,000 by the end of the month.

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