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Experts take UK to task over late virus testing, death rate

LONDON (AP) — Not enough protective equipment. Too few tests. Too many needless deaths. The British government faced sharp criticism from health officials Friday over its response to the coronavirus pandemic, with one public health expert predicting that “system errors” would leave the U.K. with Europe's highest death rate from the virus.

“We were too slow,” said Anthony Costello, director of the Institute for Global Health at University College London. He said the U.K. “could see 40,000 deaths” by the time the first wave of the country’s outbreak is over.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 last month and spent a week off work, defended the government's response. “I think we did the right things at the right time," he told a committee of lawmakers investigating Britain's handling of the pandemic.

The government has been pushed into an increasingly defensive position as the death toll mounts. As of Friday, 14,576 people had died in U.K. hospitals after testing positive for the coronavirus, according to official figures. The number does not include hundreds, and maybe thousands, of virus-related deaths in nursing homes and other settings.

Costello has been a vocal critic of the British government’s strategy, saying it has not been doing enough testing for the virus and has failed to trace and isolate people who were in contact with infected individuals.

“What were the system errors that led us to have probably the highest death rates in Europe?” he said. “We’re going to face further waves and so we need to make sure we have a system in place ... that enables you to test people rapidly in the community, in care homes and to make sure that the results are got back to them very quickly,” Costello told Parliament's health and social care committee.

Britain was slower than many other European countries to impose mandatory restrictions on business and daily life to stem the spread of the coronavirus. A lockdown was ordered on March 23, and extended Thursday for at least three more weeks. Schools, restaurants and most shops are closed, and most people are allowed to leave home only for essential errands or exercise.

The government's critics say Britain would be facing fewer virus-related deaths if the lockdown had come sooner. But they acknowledge that in some ways the U.K. has responded well to the crisis. The National Health Service was not overwhelmed as many had feared, thanks to speedy work to expand intensive-care capacity in hospitals and to bring in thousands of extra medical workers.

Several conference centers around the country were converted into temporary hospitals for COVID-19 patients. So far, they have not been needed much. But behind the Herculean effort, cracks are starting to show.

Dr. Alison Pittard, dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, the professional body for U.K. critical care specialists, told the parliamentary committee that medics had to “spread ourselves more thinly,” with the staff-to-patient ratio at hospitals higher than normal.

Pittard said there was a risk “safety would be compromised” if medical personnel became more overstretched. Medics across the country also say they don't always have enough protective equipment, despite the government's boast that it has shipped more than 1 billion pieces — including masks, gowns and gloves — to hospitals and care homes.

One hospital director was reduced to calling the BBC and asking for the phone number of the Burberry factory after the fashion house volunteered to make medical gowns. Hancock acknowledged difficulties in supplying personal protective equipment, in part because enormous demand had caused a global shortage.

“PPE is a precious resource," he said. "Getting hold of it is a huge challenge.” The greatest amount of criticism has centered on Britain's approach to testing. Early in the outbreak, Britain adopted the policy — recommended by the World Health Organization — of trying to trace every virus case, then track and test the contacts of people found to be infected.

But that process was abandoned in mid-March as the number of cases overwhelmed the country's testing capacity. Officials began to test only people with COVID-19 symptoms who were admitted to hospitals, a policy that missed almost all mild cases.

To date, the U.K. has tested about 440,000 people for the new virus. Germany has tested 1.7 million, and also has recorded far fewer coronavirus-related deaths than the U.K. The British government now acknowledges much wider testing is needed. It has set up new labs, along with more than 20 drive-thru centers where health care staff and their families can be tested.

The number of tests being performed has grown from about 5,000 to near 20,000 a day — still a long way off Hancock's promise of hitting 100,000 a day by the end of April Hancock said “test, track and trace” was the government's goal.

"I want to get back to the position where we can test everybody with symptoms," he said.

Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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