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Johnson blamed for Covid test shortages as cases hit record 183,000 | Coronavirus

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Boris Johnson has been accused of presiding over a “total shambles” as millions of people struggle to access Covid tests after a huge surge in demand, leaving essential staff unable to work.

The prime minister had urged people to take precautionary rapid Covid tests before heading out for New Year’s Eve, while the Omicron wave has pushed up demand for both lateral flows and PCRs. There were a record 183,000 positive cases confirmed on Wednesday, although this data included some delayed results.

With the huge increase in cases, the system was dogged by shortages and there were reports that key workers, including nurses and firefighters, were unable to access tests to allow them to do their jobs.

As medical staff experienced delays in PCR test results and problems accessing rapid tests, NHS Providers called on No 10 to consider reserving some tests for health workers. Some Tory MPs were also demanding answers from government ministers about whether there should be a priority ranking for who should get tests first.

Members of the public also complained that tests were hard to find, as pharmacies around England displayed signs that they had run out of lateral flow test (LFT) kits amid “patchy” deliveries and high demand.

For the second day in a row the government’s websites showed at times that walk-in PCR tests were unavailable in parts of the country, such as Hartlepool, and in short supply in others, while by mid-afternoon ordering home deliveries of LFTs had again been halted.

The overwhelming demand for tests in England follows record levels of infection since the arrival of the Omicron variant.

The UK Health and Security Agency acknowledged there was unprecedented demand for tests and urged people not to order more than they needed. But the organisation said another eight million tests were being made available to pharmacists before New Year’s Eve celebrations begin.

Pharmacists said demand has been driven by the government allowing vaccinated people out of self-isolation if they show repeated negative LFT results after a week, and among those stocking up on kits before New Year’s Eve events.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said Johnson’s plea for people to take lateral flows when there were shortages showed “spectacular incompetence”.

“Congratulations to Boris Johnson who has managed to appear on television today urging people to get tested when people are struggling to access them,” he said.

“People are trying to do the right thing, follow the government’s own advice, and test themselves regularly, but are prevented by the Conservative government’s incompetence.”

Daisy Cooper, Lib Dem health spokesperson, added that it was “now or never to get Covid tests to frontline workers”.

“If the government doesn’t get its act together today then vaccine centres could soon grind to a halt, and patient safety could be at risk from further NHS and care staff absences,” she said.

Johnson’s comments on testing have been repeated by other ministers, including the health secretary, Sajid Javid, and health minister Gillian Keegan, who advised new year’s revellers: “Do be cautious, take a lateral flow test before you go out.”

There were particular concerns about a lack of tests affecting staff absences in the NHS. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said it was “vital that NHS staff get prompt access to the tests they need to ensure they can return to work as quickly as possible” and suggested “looking at whether we need to reserve dedicated testing capacity for NHS staff for a period”.

Dr David Wrigley, the British Medical Association’s deputy council chair, said: “In order to keep the NHS working, it is imperative that staff must be able to regularly test for Covid 19 and so supplies of lateral flow tests for key workers should be prioritised.”

New London fire brigade data shows that a third of fire engines in London have been unavailable after more than 700 firefighters either tested positive or were having to self-isolate earlier this week.

Staff shortages meant a 64-metre ladder appliance, bought after the Grenfell Tower disaster, was unavailable for much of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, while more than 15% of operational firefighters were off work because of Covid on 27 December.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, which represents NHS community pharmacies in England, said deliveries of LFT kits to pharmacies had restarted on Wednesday after four days of no service. But many of those that did receive them reported quickly exhausting their supplies.

Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said: “Pharmacies are reporting that every five minutes approximately somebody comes in to the pharmacy asking for a test.

“But, unfortunately, because of the issues around supply being patchy and inconsistent, it means that those who come for the test don’t always get it, which is very stressful not just for the pharmacy team but for the patient.”

In Devizes, Devon, the branch of Boots had exhausted its supply of tests by 11am, with two other pharmacies in the town saying they had no kits at all.

But Maria Caulfield, the government’s junior health minister, insisted there were “plenty of tests”, in a post to a WhatsApp group of Tory MPs. Caulfield said the “constant speculation that we are running out of tests is just fuelling demand”, and urged colleagues to tell constituents they should “keep trying” to book tests online.

Javid is also understood to be preparing a memo for MPs confirming supplies of LFTs and PCRs were safe.

However, their assurances were undermined by Tory MPs reporting first-hand problems ordering tests. Roger Gale, the MP for North Thanet, tweeted that “Kent appears to be in Lateral Flow and PCR Test gridlock”.

Gale later said he had spoken with Javid and been told “there is a world shortage of Lateral Flow & PCR test supplies, but we are buying all that’s available”.

A former minister called the situation a “shitshow” and added Javid’s letter “probably won’t immediately match reality”. A second Tory MP said availability of tests “definitely seems to be an issue”, and a third said a relative who was an essential worker had been unable to order one.

The UK Health Security Agency said tests were temporarily unavailable on the government website at points throughout the day due to “exceptionally high demand” and urged people not to order more tests before using the ones they have.

A spokesperson said: “During periods of exceptional demand there may be temporary pauses in ordering or receiving tests, to ensure we manage distribution across the system.”

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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