Professor John Newton is overseeing government coronavirus test vow

The man with the poisoned chalice: Prof John Newton will oversee the government’s plan to carry out 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by end April

  • Professor John Newton has been appointed to increase UK coronavirus testing 
  • He will co-ordinate with businesses to expand manufacturing capacity in the UK 
  • Comes as Matt Hancock pledged to carry out 100,000 daily tests by end of April 

Professor John Newton, director of public health improvement for Public Health England, has been appointed by the government to try and hit ambitious new coronavirus testing targets. 

Speaking this afternoon at the daily government press conference, Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged to carry out 100,000 tests every day by the end of the month. 

To meet these ambitious targets, and reverse criticism of UK testing, Professor Newton has been tasked with co-ordinating a national effort with global manufacturers to try and expand manufacturing capacity in the UK.

He will also be working with the NHS, universities and the government to raise UK testing capabilities as soon as possible.

Professor John Newton has been appointed by the government to try and hit ambitious new coronavirus testing targets

Stewards organise traffic at a Covid-19 test centre for NHS workers which has opened at Ikea’s store in Wembley, north-west London

The number of coronavirus tests being done in the UK has been rising but only to around 10,000 per day – and the number of people being tested is about half as high because individuals are tested more than once. The Government is a long way off its 25,000-per-day target

It is a daunting challenge, with the current 10,000 per day level of testing far below countries like Germany, which is carrying out up to 100,000 daily.

Professor Newton is the man given the poisoned chalice, after a decorated career in the health sector. 

In his role as Director of Health Improvement, he is responsible for advances in screening, alcohol, tobacco and drugs and diet and obesity.

TESTING OUTRAGE SPARKS GOVERNMENT BLAME GAME 

A brutal blame game is under way within government today over the failure to scale up the testing regime.

Fingers have been pointed at the government’s top health experts for holding back the use of wider testing facilities. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has repeatedly stressed that ‘the only thing worse than no test is a bad test’. 

Prof Cosford said ‘everybody involved is frustrated’ about not reaching the required testing output.

‘We’ve played our part, which is to make absolutely certain that that test is spread throughout Public Health England’s laboratories, throughout NHS laboratories, is available to support the clinical treatment of patients who need it,’ he said. 

He also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Our role has always been to – and I speak from Public Health England – make sure our labs are doing what they need to do and we’re rolling tests out to the NHS for clinical treatment of patients.

‘There is some capacity that is available within that in order to start testing NHS staff and that’s being done.

‘You’ve heard about the 2,000 yesterday – nowhere near where we need to get to but it’s a good start – and then there’s the drive-through systems that are beginning.’

Asked why other testing facilities were not being used, Prof Cosford said PHE is most closely involved in NHS testing before adding: ‘The second (strand) is how we can use all of those laboratories, all of that capacity, to boost up at least 100,000 tests a day, hopefully more.’ 

He was appointed to the role in October 2012 and is also the chairman of the WHO European Burden of Disease Network.

The former Regional Director of Public Health for NHS South Central, he was also Director of Research and Development in two large NHS teaching hospitals, Southampton and Oxford.

Professor Newton also served as the Chief Executive of the charity UK Biobank and led England’s contribution to the Global Burden of Disease project, a study into the impacts of diseases on the world. 

But his role in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic is sure to be his toughest yet. 

Speaking at today’s conference, he said swab tests were the most important priority for the NHS as antibody tests work best 28 days after an infection.

He said: ‘The initial priority of course is for the swab tests because those are tests which allow the NHS to manage critically ill patients to the best they possibly can and also to allow NHS staff and other key workers to come back to work when they can.

‘The antibody tests are ideally done 28 days after an infection, so in fact the requirement for the antibody test isn’t really with us yet.

‘So the urgent priority – both types of tests are important, both are urgent – but the most urgent is the swab tests so that we can treat patients better and get staff back to work.’

It comes after Downing Street said earlier: ‘We acknowledge that more needs to be done in relation to testing. We need to be testing more people and we need to be making progress very quickly.’ 

Emerging for the first time since being struck down by the disease himself, the Health Secretary told the press conference he ‘gets’ why there has been criticism as he abandoned the previous centralised approach and urged the wider science industry to help boost capacity.   

Defending the government’s response, a querulous and at times emotional Mr Hancock said that Public Health England had been ‘working round the clock’ and could be ‘proud’ of what it had done.

Taking the press briefing in No10 this evening after a week in isolation recovering from the virus, he listed five ‘pillars’ for the new strategy.

Swab tests at PHE labs will be increased dramatically to 25,000 a day; research institutions and private sector firms like Boots and Amazon will be brought into the screening system; antibody tests will be introduced if they can be proved effective; community testing will be bolstered; and the overall UK diagnostics industry will be enlarged.   

TESTING OUTRAGE SPARKS GOVERNMENT BLAME GAME 

A brutal blame game is under way within government today over the failure to scale up the testing regime.

Fingers have been pointed at the government’s top health experts for holding back the use of wider testing facilities. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has repeatedly stressed that ‘the only thing worse than no test is a bad test’. 

Prof Cosford said ‘everybody involved is frustrated’ about not reaching the required testing output.

‘We’ve played our part, which is to make absolutely certain that that test is spread throughout Public Health England’s laboratories, throughout NHS laboratories, is available to support the clinical treatment of patients who need it,’ he said. 

He also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Our role has always been to – and I speak from Public Health England – make sure our labs are doing what they need to do and we’re rolling tests out to the NHS for clinical treatment of patients.

‘There is some capacity that is available within that in order to start testing NHS staff and that’s being done.

‘You’ve heard about the 2,000 yesterday – nowhere near where we need to get to but it’s a good start – and then there’s the drive-through systems that are beginning.’

Asked why other testing facilities were not being used, Prof Cosford said PHE is most closely involved in NHS testing before adding: ‘The second (strand) is how we can use all of those laboratories, all of that capacity, to boost up at least 100,000 tests a day, hopefully more.’ 

Mr Hancock rejected comparisons with huge testing numbers in Germany, saying the UK was building from a ‘lower base’ when it came to biotech capacity.

He said some of the prototype tests he was being urged to buy had failed trials. One missed three out of four cases, he said.

But he admitted that even with his new ‘five point plan’ testing capacity will not hit 100,000 per day until the end of the month – by which point he guaranteed that all frontline NHS staff will have access to checks. 

He said the longer-term goal was to have capacity for 250,000 checks every day. 

That numbers will include any antibody tests – to show who previously had the virus – if they can be shown to be effective. 

‘Our ultimate goal is that anyone who needs a test can have one,’ he said.

‘The new national effort for testing will ensure that we can get tests for everyone who needs them and I am delighted that the pharmaceutical industry is rising to this challenge, putting unprecedented resources into testing,’ he said.

‘We took the right decisions at the rights times on the very best scientific advice.’ 

It comes as another 569 coronavirus deaths were declared in the UK today, meaning Britain’s death toll has quadrupled in six days with 2,921 confirmed victims of the deadly infection.

The rise makes today the worst day so far in the outbreak – which has crippled Britain since it began spreading on British soil in February. 

It is the third day in a row that a new one-day high in deaths has been recorded.

A further 4,244 people were diagnosed with the life-threatening infection in the past 24 hours, pushing the total number of positive tests to 33,718 – but officials are clueless about the true size of the outbreak.

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