Boris Johnson's Government Under Fire Over COVID-19 Response : Coronavirus Updates 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 quickly rise to nearly 3,000.

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

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In the United Kingdom, more than 500 people are dying every day from COVID-19. Health workers there are continuing to scrounge for protective gear, and few have been tested for the virus. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the latest from Britain.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Libby Nolan works as a nurse in Wales. She's been home sick with symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

LIBBY NOLAN: It's been really rough. I'm extremely nauseous. And my chest is really tight.

LANGFITT: Nolan, who's 56, thinks she may have contracted her illness from an infected colleague who was only wearing basic protective gear because of pressure to preserve supplies.

NOLAN: I'm extremely, extremely angry. It could have been prevented. I'm hearing all kinds of stories about equipment failures. We're not supplied with goggles.

LANGFITT: At least five British health care staff have already died from COVID-19. Nolan's husband, Ev, is an anesthesiologist. She's worried he might not get the level of protective gear he needs.

NOLAN: For many, many people, they've - you know, they don't want to die for this. They just want the proper equipment so that they're safe. For me, I want his face covered. I want him to see grandchildren. Sorry.

LANGFITT: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who's in self-isolation with COVID-19 himself, insists the government is going all out to support health care staff.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We've shipped, just in the last couple of weeks, 397 million separate pieces of personal protective equipment. We're also massively increasing testing. This is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it.

LANGFITT: But the U.K. could have had even more protective gear than it does. Despite Brexit, Britain is still eligible to make bulk purchases together with the European Union. But the U.K. didn't seize the opportunity and attributed the mistake to an email mix-up. Politicians in Brussels are skeptical.

PETER LIESE: I don't believe in the story of a missed email. I think it was a political decision.

LANGFITT: Peter Liese is a member of the European Parliament from Germany and a medical doctor.

LIESE: I think there was this fear that it should be embarrassing if we still cooperate because the main story of the Brexit - yes, is of course, we don't need any cooperation. We can do whatever we want without the European Union.

LANGFITT: So far, the government has only tested 2,000 out of more than half a million National Health Service staff. Public health analysts say Johnson's government didn't prioritize testing because it expected mass infection which would lead to so-called herd immunity. When models showed that could result in up to 250,000 deaths, officials abruptly changed strategy and are now playing catch-up. Anna Kahn-Leavitt is an American-born British trained doctor who works in the intensive care.

ANNA KAHN-LEAVITT: They make all these statements about what's happening or going to happen. I see no scaled up testing. I see no testing of frontline staff.

LANGFITT: Lack of testing has forced tens of thousands of health care workers with symptoms to self-isolate at home, starving hospitals of labor. Kahn-Leavitt said that if doctors at her London hospital knew they'd already been exposed to the virus, they could do the riskier work and spare others.

KAHN-LEAVITT: If we knew that there were a third of us who'd all had coronavirus already and had a antibody response left behind, then it would allow us to use different types of oxygenation that we can't use right now because it's too high risk for staff.

LANGFITT: On Thursday, the government vowed to carry out a hundred thousand tests a day in England by the end of this month. So far, about 163,000 people have been tested in a nation of more than 66 million. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

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