UK vows to ‘massively’ increase virus testing amid criticism

A cyclist rides near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster to take their daily exercise allowance in London on April 2, 2020, as life in Britain continues during the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)
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Updated 02 April 2020

UK vows to ‘massively’ increase virus testing amid criticism

  • Johnson’s Conservative government vowed weeks ago to rapidly increase the number of tests for the new coronavirus to 10,000 a day, then 25,000 a day by mid-April
  • Like some other countries, the UK has limited virus testing to hospitalized patients, leaving people with milder symptoms unsure whether they were infected

LONDON: Political opponents, scientists and even usually supportive newspapers lambasted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday over his government’s broken promises on wider testing for the COVID-19 virus.
Johnson’s Conservative government vowed weeks ago to rapidly increase the number of tests for the new coronavirus to 10,000 a day, then 25,000 a day by mid-April. But progress has been slow. The government says 10,412 tests were performed Tuesday, the first time the daily target was met.
Like some other countries, the UK has limited virus testing to hospitalized patients, leaving people with milder symptoms unsure whether they were infected. Many scientists say wider testing — especially of health care workers — would allow medics who are off work with symptoms to return if their results are negative, and would give a better picture of how the virus spreads.
Johnson tested positive for the virus a week ago and revealed last Friday that he had mild symptoms of COVID-19 disease. He has continued working while in self-isolation and promised in a video message that the government was “massively increasing testing.”
Testing “is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end,” Johnson said.
Opinion polls suggest Britons have been largely supportive of the government’s efforts to contain the new coronavirus. Johnson ordered residents to stay home except for a handful of permitted circumstances and ordered the closure of schools, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops.
But as the number of virus-related deaths in the UK accelerated in recent days, the unity behind the government’s response is shattering. The country had more than 29,800 cases and more than 2,350 deaths as of Thursday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
The right-leaning Daily Mail newspaper slammed the “testing fiasco” on its front page Thursday. “Questions without Answers,” said the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph, accusing the government of being unable to say why Britain lagged behind its European neighbors on testing.
Critics compare Britain’s approach to testing unfavorably to the one in Germany, which has the ability to test 500,000 people a week and has reported fewer deaths among people with the virus
The government says testing front-line health care workers is a priority, and it set up five drive-through test centers to do it. But they had tested only 2,800 people by Thursday, from a National Health Service workforce of more than 1 million.
Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of Public Health England, acknowledged that “everybody involved is frustrated that we haven’t got to the place where we’ve got to get to.”
Part of the problem is Britain’s centralized state-funded health system, which is fairly efficient at organizing hospital treatment but poor at rapidly boosting testing capacity. All coronavirus tests were initially processed at a single Public Health England laboratory, though several other public labs are now also handling the tests.
British officials also blame shortages of swabs to take samples and of chemicals known as reagents, which are needed to perform the tests, for the delay in ramping up testing.
But private-sector firms and academic institutes say their offers of help have so far been ignored.
Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research, said its laboratory had been repurposed so it could carry out 500 tests a day by next week, rising to 2,000 a day in future.
He compared the effort required to the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British troops from the French port of Dunkirk as it was overrun by German forces in 1940 — a rescue that saw hundreds of small private boats join the navy in plucking soldiers from the beaches.
“We are a lot of little boats. and the little boats can be effective,” Nurse said. “The government has put some big boats, destroyers in place. That’s a bit more cumbersome to get working and we wish them all the luck to do that, but we little boats can contribute as well.”

Ex-Afghan spy chief: Qatar eroding peace efforts

Updated 1 min 56 sec ago

Ex-Afghan spy chief: Qatar eroding peace efforts

  • Rahmatullah Nabil claims that Qatar wants to undermine the role of UAE and KSA

KABUL: The advent of an abrupt troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign could leave the country with heightened conflict and the region in chaos, Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief has warned.

Under the Feb. 29 peace deal signed between the Taliban and the US in Qatar, Washington has already begun withdrawing troops from the country and, by spring next year, all personnel will be gone.

Rahmatullah Nabil, former head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, said that  Washington was poised to give a significant role in Afghan affairs to its Cold War era ally, Pakistan, despite the fact that Islamabad had been a key supporter of the Taliban — at the time of the Soviet withdrawal from the country, Pakistan used the Taliban as a proxy to advance its doctrine of strategic depth. 

“If the deal is such that the destiny of Afghanistan is placed in Pakistan’s hands in exchange for the guarantee of withdrawal of US troops that are immune from attacks ... I dare say that this deal cannot be implemented but will lead to more intensive war in Afghanistan and the region,” he told Arab News on Wednesday.

He said that if the move was for Trump to be able to use the election slogan “I ended the war in Afghanistan” that he was “not very optimistic” about the prospect of peace.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has consistently called for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace and reconciliation process, and an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue as the only way to realize the Afghan national reconciliation, leading to prompt end of the prolonged conflict.

“It is critical that the intra-Afghan negotiations commence at the earliest, culminating in a  comprehensive and inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 17, adding: “Pakistan reiterates its commitment to continue to support a peaceful, stable, united, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors.”

Trump, who has declined to set a timetable for complete troop withdrawal, said the US had been in Afghanistan long enough. “We can always go back if we want to,” the president said during a news conference on Wednesday.

The Pentagon was preparing for Trump to withdraw thousands of troops before the presidential election in November, US media reported on Wednesday.

Since the Taliban halted attacks on foreign troops as per the Qatar accord, US officials no longer argue that the pullout will be conditional, which means that the US may not wait for the start of intra-Afghan talks before completing its military withdrawal.

Nabil, who served initially as chief of the Presidential Protection Force before serving for five years as general director of Afghanistan’s spy agency until 2015, also said that Qatar was playing its part in the “New Great Game” to find a footstep in Afghanistan, which is why the oil-rich nation had given shelter and provided funds to Taliban leaders in Doha and allowed them to own businesses there.

“They (Qatar) want to be part of regional game in the meantime, and want to undermine the role of the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” Nabil said.   

The office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did not respond to Arab News’ request for comment as to how he viewed the US withdrawal, and whether Trump’s administration had shared plans and details surroundin it with Kabul.

Said Azam, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Arab News that the post-US withdrawal period in Afghanistan would see other regional powers, such as India, Iran, Russia and China, fight for their interests.

The International Crisis Group, in a report following the Doha deal, said: “The impact of a US military withdrawal on the Afghan government would extend beyond its security forces’ fate; any negative shift in the country’s already tenuous security situation could prompt an end not only to civilian and humanitarian assistance, but also to vital foreign commercial investments.

“The (Doha) agreement made the withdrawal contingent on Taliban compliance with anti-terrorism commitments but not explicitly contingent on a successful Afghan peace process. The deal commits the Taliban to starting peace talks with other Afghans but does not speak to scenarios in which talks might fail to begin or to generate momentum,” it added.