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

A medical worker cleans an ambulance at St. Thomas' Hospital, one of the many hospitals dealing with coronavirus patients in London. U.K. health care personnel say they are not receiving enough tests for the virus themselves.
Alberto Pezzali

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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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