Covid testing capability anticipated to fall quick as UK instances surge
According to an internal government document, the UK may not have enough coronavirus tests to meet rising demand in the coming weeks as the new strain of Covid-19 cases skyrockets.
Demand for conventional polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, used by the NHS Test and Trace program, is likely to exceed supply by up to 50,000 tests per day in the week leading up to Christmas. This is based on government calculations made last week and seen by the Financial Times.
The forecast that demand could exceed 700,000 tests per day if capacity is currently at 650,000 was hit before the effects of the new Covid-19 strain were fully understood.
Since those calculations were made, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the mutation could be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the previous strain. The warning sparked international concern and resulted in more than 40 countries imposing travel bans on Britain.
Allan Wilson, director of the Institute of Biomedical Science, a professional organization, said the new rules restricting family visits at Christmas could ease pressure in the next few days, “The increased demand for this new strain of Covid-19 is likely to increase compensate for the decrease “.
“We can just hold our breath and see what happens,” he said.
An increase in demand for Covid-19 tests in the run-up to Christmas of around 380,000 a day on December 14 was fueled by a worrying surge in cases, particularly in the south-east of England, as well as a large number of people with no symptoms ordering tests before visiting family members.
This put a strain on the test system. Many people have reported on social media that they were unable to order home test kits over the weekend or received miles to reach the nearest available drive-in center.
The government increased capacity to about 593,000 tests per day late last week and will add another 100,000 per day next week, according to the document, with capacity expected to increase to 788,000 by Jan. 19.
Still, NHS Test and Trace predicts that demand could exceed testing capacity several times over the next month as the virus continues to spread and students return to school and university.
The Department of Health and Welfare said there is capacity to respond to increasing demand and “people can be confident they can get one when they have symptoms and need a test”.
However, it insisted that “individuals should only book PCR tests if they have had symptoms of coronavirus: a high temperature, a new continuous cough, or a loss or change in their sense of smell or taste”.
“It’s important that everyone continue to play their role by following the rules, remembering the hands, face, space guide and signing up for community tests when they’re offered on-site,” it said.
Meanwhile, the Medicines and Health Products Regulator, the UK’s regulator, has approved rapid Covid-19 tests for the first time for use by members of the public at home, according to two people informed of the decision.
The approval of the use of lateral flow devices that provide results in less than 30 minutes by those with no medical expertise follows the first such approval of an over-the-counter rapid test by the U.S. regulatory agency last week. However, the MHRA would like to stress that the devices should only be used to “find” cases of Covid-19 infection so that people who did not know they had the virus can isolate. They should not be used to “enable” people to make life decisions, it said.
Side river tests have been the subject of heated debate, with some claiming they are highly inaccurate and dangerous when used as a basis for making decisions about whether it is safe to visit elderly relatives or end periods of isolation.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.