Britain’s COVID testing buckles, pressuring government

A security guard stands outside a Covid-19 test Centre in Leyton in east London on September 17, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 17 September 2020

Britain’s COVID testing buckles, pressuring government

  • Approval of his government’s handling of the crisis fell to its lowest recorded by pollster YouGov, with 63% viewing it badly
  • Ministers have acknowledged that many families are unable to get tests or were offered them only at remote locations

LONDON: Britain’s government acknowledged problems in its COVID-19 testing system on Thursday as soaring demand met with worsening turnaround times and availability during a spike in infections.
Only 14% of test results in England came back in 24 hours last week, a sharp fall from 32% the week before, data showed.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is under pressure over what it had said would be a “world-beating” system to test and trace cases so as to avoid a second wave.
Approval of his government’s handling of the crisis fell to its lowest recorded by pollster YouGov, with 63% viewing it badly.
“There’s a challenge in testing,” UK health minister Matt Hancock said. “The challenge is that demand has gone up faster.”
Johnson acknowledged on Wednesday that there was not enough capacity and said he was aiming for 500,000 daily tests by the end of October.
“I am certain that we will need more as we go beyond the end of October,” Dido Harding, interim chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection, told lawmakers, noting two new labs would be set up.
Ministers have acknowledged that many families are unable to get tests or were offered them only at remote locations.
Harding said 27% of people getting tests did not have symptoms, and health minister Hancock pointed a finger at people sometimes going without good reason.
“It is incredibly important that those with symptoms come forward, and that those without symptoms do not,” Hancock said.
Cases are sharply increasing, with many children, parents and workers fretting whether or not they can safely return to school or the office.
Paul Reid, Chief Executive of Ireland’s Health Service Executive, said England’s system was “almost in collapse” and UK officials had asked him for help.
The national Test and Trace scheme said there had been a 167% increase in numbers testing positive in England since the end of August.
There were 3,395 new cases of COVID-19 reported on Thursday, while Wednesday saw the highest daily number since May, although many more tests are being carried out.
There were 236,219 tests processed in the latest daily figures, compared to around 70,000 in early May.
In total, 381,614 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Britain, and there have been 41,705 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

Updated 20 October 2020

US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

  • Khalilzad urges militant group to honor ‘historic opportunity’ and end decades of war

KABUL: The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation warned on Monday that increasing attacks by the Taliban could undermine the historic peace deal signed between Washington and the militant group in February.

Zalmay Khalilzad also said the strikes could derail the ongoing intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar, that look to end the protracted conflict in the country.

“Continued high levels of violence can threaten the peace process and the agreement, and the core understanding that there is no military solution. Violence today remains distressingly high in spite of the recent reaffirmation of the need for a substantial reduction,” he said in tweets on Monday.

Since last week, the Taliban have unleashed a series of attacks in parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the southern Helmand province, where more than 35,000 people have been displaced over recent days, Afghan officials told Arab News.

In response, US forces in the country launched several airstrikes on Taliban positions, which the insurgent group described as a breach of the February accord on Sunday.

Responding to the Taliban’s accusations, Khalilzad said they were “unfounded charges of violations and inflammatory rhetoric,” and “do not advance peace.”

Washington also accused the Taliban of breaking the historic agreement, which, among other things, looks to finalize a complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country.

Khalilzad said the airstrikes were conducted to support Afghan troops as part of Washington’s commitment to defend them, if necessary.

He added that the Taliban attacks in Helmand, including some in the provincial capital that targeted Afghan security forces, led to a recent meeting in Doha where both sides agreed to “decrease attacks and strikes.” And while levels of violence in Helmand have fallen, it “remains high” across the country, the Afghan-born diplomat added.

Some Afghan observers said the motive behind Taliban attacks was to gain an “upper hand” in negotiations.

However, Khalilzad warned of the risks involved in using this strategy.

“The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiations table is risky. Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculation by Afghan leaders,” he said, urging all sides to honor the “historic opportunity for peace, which must not be missed.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Monday that the group had “no comment” on Khalilzad’s statements and that US forces had “violated the Doha agreement in various forms by carrying out excessive airstrikes.”

Mujahid added that he had “no information” on the state of attacks in Helmand province.

However, Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, told Arab News that “fighting subsided in various parts of Helmand” over the past two days.

Meanwhile, an anonymous senior official in President Ashraf Ghani’s government praised Khalilzad for “beginning to get realistic” and “breaking silence over repeated Taliban attacks.”

Another figure, Kabul-based lawmaker Fawzia Zaki, said: “The government and Afghan people, in general, insisted on enforcement of a cease-fire or a drastic reduction of violence before the beginning of the intra-Afghan dialogue.”

For it to be effective, Khalilzad and Washington “need to exert growing pressure to make them listen to the righteous demands of ours,” Zaki added.

However, experts have warned of the “growing impatience” of both sides.

Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst, told Arab News: “Khalilzad’s comments clearly show that Washington is becoming impatient with Taliban attacks and the lack of progress in the talks.”

He said that US President Donald Trump is “hoping to see a breakthrough soon,” so that he can “portray it as a success of his administration for his re-election campaign.

“But that is not happening. Maybe Washington has realized that won’t happen, so they are beginning to come out and warn the Taliban against the consequences of their attacks,” Haqpal added.