Thousands of NHS doctors and nurses may have been given inaccurate coronavirus tests, it has emerged.
A leaked Public Health England document revealed testing centres had been told to stop using the kits because of ‘quality assurance difficulties’.
The memo warned the results were less reliable than initially thought – sparking fears for the near-100,000 NHS and social care workers who have been tested.
It means thousands of them could have returned to work with vulnerable patients while still contagious.
The document from April 11, seen by The Daily Telegraph, said the tests run by PHE and NHS laboratories had produced a few ‘discordant results’.
Scientists have been told to stop using them by tomorrow and switch to commercial kits. They must double-check all ambiguous results.
A Government official told the Telegraph the PHE test was a ‘home brew’ and had been relied on ‘for too long’.
But health officials said it found the test produced different results to alternative commercial tests in only 2 per cent of samples from one of the labs.
Professor Sharon Peacock, of PHE’s national infection service, said: ‘No diagnostic test is 100 per cent sensitive. It is standard practice to move to commercial test kits once available.’
The Government pledged to carry out 100,000 swab tests a day by the end of April – but ministers only carried out 18,000 tests on Monday.
A woman is swabbed at a testing facility for NHS staff at Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol on Tuesday
Coronavirus testing was taking place today in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey. But it remained empty for large parts of the day
The UK was revealed to have one of the lowest coronavirus testing rates in the world
All of PHE’s 12 testing centres have been told to stop using the current kits by Thursday and switch to tests supplied by commercial firms.
NHS labs will continue to use the method but must double check all uncertain results until they can switch to commercial tests.
Health officials at PHE insist the tests were not faulty and say the problem was that there were ‘quality assurance difficulties’ caused by shortages of swabs and transport.
Experts said that PHE’s approach – outsourcing all the different pieces of kit – leaves margin for error in the results, whereas tests used by commercial firms are more ready-made.
PHE had previously boasted that it was one of the first in the world to produce a sensitive test and roll it out nationwide.
UK sets hopes on its first human trials of vaccine
Volunteers will tomorrow become the first Britons to receive a coronavirus vaccine, the Health Secretary announced last night.
Matt Hancock said the first of 510 healthy volunteers will get the jab to help experts find a route out of the crisis.
Work on the vaccine began at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and its Oxford Vaccine Group in January.
Health secretary Matt Hancock, pictured, says volunteers will be the first to receive a coronavirus vaccine
The volunteers, aged 18 to 55, will start receiving it in Oxford and Southampton, with three further testing centres to be added later.
Results could be available in September, with one million doses already in production. It is the first UK vaccine trial to begin testing humans – and only the fourth globally. The US has started two studies and China has one.
Mr Hancock said: ‘This is a new disease, this is uncertain science. The UK is at the front of the global effort.
‘We have put more money than any other country into a search for a vaccine.’
A second vaccine project at Imperial College London will receive £22.5million for clinical trials, while Oxford will be granted £20million.
Doris-Ann Williams, the chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostic Association, which represents the UK’s commercial testing sector, said if private companies had been embraced earlier ‘perhaps we wouldn’t have been so reliant on the initial PHE test’.
A senior Whitehall official told The Telegraph that PHE ‘want to be in control of everything’.
They added: ‘That’s a problem. They’ve taken too long to involve the academic and private sector, and so we’ve relied on the home brew test for too long… they waited for too long to open their arms to universities and private companies, and now we’re scrambling to catch up.’
It is the latest misstep in a series of coronavirus testing blunders that has seen the UK fall way behind its European partners.
Health Minister Matt Hancock has promised the country will carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month, but figures show only around 20,000 are being done.
By comparison, Germany has been carrying out half a million tests per week since the beginning of April.
Plans to roll out remote coronavirus testing and get Britain closer to six-digit daily tests are being held up by red tape, a senior Government advisor has warned.
A scheme to post swabs to care homes and private addresses was ready to start this week in a bid to quickly increase test numbers.
But it has been delayed by bureaucrats who insist anyone who conducts tests must be ‘accredited’.
With the Government unlikely to hit its 100,000-tests-a-day target by the end of the month, remote testing is seen as the key to get things moving.
Professor John Newton, who leads the Government’s testing drive, last night told the daily No 10 briefing it was important that test swabs were sent to people ‘rather than expecting people to come to the swabs’.
But Dr Nick Summerton, a special clinical advisor to Downing Street, says he is frustrated with the hurdles that are being put up by agencies such as the Care Quality Commission and Public Health England.
Doctors have made an online video telling care staff and patients how to do tests but officials insist proper training is needed.
A scheme to use Amazon drivers to send 5,000 self-test kits to care homes has barely begun because of official insistence that care staff are trained and assessed. And the pilot of a scheme to send test kits to patients who call NHS 111 is facing similar resistance.
Dr Summerton, who also works as a Covid-19 specialist on the 111 phone line, said: ‘Virtually every patient I speak to could benefit from testing.’
With just eight days to go until the end-of-April 100,000 target, only 18,206 tests took place on Monday.
There is now capacity to process nearly 40,000 tests a day but only half is being used.
Dr Summerton also wants to use occupational health therapists and private firms to conduct tests in GP car parks or patient homes.
‘The public and the economy are crying out for testing. But Public Health England and the Care Quality Commission are coming up with hurdles,’ he said.
In a comparison of 17 countries with the largest coronavirus outbreaks, Britain ranks 15th above only Peru and India
Cars head towards the pilot coronavirus drive-through testing site in Milton Keynes on Tuesday
Of 5,000 kits sitting in an Amazon warehouse ready to be sent to care homes only 200 have been sent out so far.
‘CQC has decided that care homes cannot do that if staff are not trained and accredited to stick a swab up someone’s nose,’ said Dr Summerton.
‘That’s going to take weeks. If we don’t get the testing done we will end up locked in our homes and the economy will go down the tube.’
Dr Rosie Benneyworth of the Care Quality Commission said: ‘Care home residents are some of the most vulnerable people in society and it is essential that these tests are carried out accurately and effectively, and that residents understand the purpose of the test and have the opportunity to fully consent.
‘It’s crucial that those undertaking the testing are appropriately trained and competent. Where a test is incorrectly undertaken there is a greater risk that it will produce a false negative result.’
A spokesman for Public Health England said: ‘The Department of Health and Social Care is currently carrying out pilot schemes at pace to decide the best way of delivering this testing nationwide and PHE is fully supportive of this approach.’
It comes after the UK was revealed to have one of the lowest coronavirus testing rates in the world.
In a comparison of 17 countries with the largest coronavirus outbreaks, Britain ranks 15th above only Peru and India.
Testing just 5.54 people per every thousand in its population, the UK sits miles below similar nations including Italy, Germany and Spain which are all testing more than 20 people per thousand, according to statistics compiled by Oxford-led researchers.
Iceland, included in the comparison because of it’s world-beating testing capacity, is testing 124.47 people per thousand – one in every eight people in the country.
Testing people for COVID-19, and isolating them and others they have been in contact with, is seen by the World Health Organization as absolutely crucial to bringing the pandemic under control.
The British Government, currently only testing medical workers and people in hospitals, has set a target of carrying out 100,000 tests per day by May 1.
But the scale-up, inspired by Germany’s massive testing capacity and now due in 10 days’ time, looks like a tall order at the UK’s current pace – just 19,316 were done yesterday, an increase of only 9,000 in almost three weeks from 10,215 on April 2.
Statistics from the Our World in Data project, which is run by experts at the University of Oxford, shows testing data for countries around the world.
Figures for 17 of the 20 countries with the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world – no data was available for Brazil, Iran or China – shows that the UK ranks poorly alongside similar nations.
Britain, with 125,000 confirmed cases of the disease, is testing 5.54 people per 1,000 – 0.5 per cent of its population – according to the stats.
Meanwhile, Switzerland (28,000 cases) is testing 25.52 people per thousand – 2.5 per cent.
Other top performers also battling outbreaks affecting dozens of thousands of people include Italy (180,000 cases and 22.08 tests per 1,000); Germany (146,000 cases and 20.94 tests per 1,000) and Spain (200,000 cases and 20.02 tests).
Iceland was included in the comparison not because of the size of its outbreak (1,771 patients) but because of its high testing rate – 124.47 people per thousand.
The 17 countries with the largest epidemics and data available were the USA, Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK, France, Turkey, Russia, Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, India, Peru, Ireland and Sweden.
Ranking at the bottom of the table for testing was India, which has managed to test only 0.17 people per 1,000 – approximately one in every 6,000 – and Peru, with 4.08 per thousand.
Above those came the UK and then France, with the slightly higher 7.05 tests per thousand.
Testing does not appear directly linked to death rate, however.
Italy, which has a death rate of 13.3 per cent, has a higher testing rate than Germany, where only 3.2 per cent of patients have died.
France, meanwhile has a similar testing rate to Turkey – around seven per cent – but its death rate is 17.8 per cent compared to Turkey’s 2.3 per cent.