PEOPLE are dying because we are failing to test properly for the presence of coronavirus, says a top York infectious diseases expert.

Prof Colin Garner, the former director of a cancer research lab at the University of York who now heads up charity Antibiotic Research UK, has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson questioning plans for a centralised testing depot at Milton Keynes and urging him instead to make use of the expertise of researchers and labs standing idle across the country.

If we did that, Prof Garner says, we could be testing up to 100,000 patients per day for COVID-19 - and have results back within 24 hours.

Prof Garner says specialist researchers should be classed as 'key workers' so they can get to their labs. Taxi drivers and delivery companies should also get key worker status so that they can ferry samples for testing to and from local labs.

Referring to government pans for a central testing facility at Milton Keynes, Prof Garner said: "What use is a facility based near London to someone living in the north?

"How long will it take for samples to be collected, shipped, analysed and the results returned to the patients? It will be days.

"We are facing the biggest pandemic since the Second World War and we haven’t even tested our frontline medics for the virus, yet. Health carers and members of the public are spreading COVID-19 like wildfire, and most of them don’t even know they have the virus.

"Meanwhile, specialist labs sit empty, experts are not consulted and, as the volunteers recruited to the NHS have shown, an army of potential deliverers is out there but have yet to be mobilised."

Explaining how localised testing might work in his home city of York, Prof Garner said: “Patients would be tested by their GP, the samples sent to one of the regional labs close by using recruited taxi drivers, UBER drivers, Deliveroo drivers and other private companies.

"The samples would be analysed by local experts and the results sent back within 24 hours. At the moment, the testing process can take up to four days, with demand going up and just the one new testing facility in Milton Keynes. By the time the results come back, the patient could be dead.”

With the right will and a national effort, such a scheme could be up-and-running across the country in a fortnight and help reduce the number of deaths, Prof Garner said.

" Look at what has happened in Germany or South Korea to see what a dramatic impact testing can have. People have died because we are ill prepared. We must think outside the box to tackle this public health tragedy. This is war and we must use the same measures we use in war to tackle this unseen killer."

In a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prof Garner has called for someone other than NHS England to be put in charge of the testing operation.

"We need action to avoid deaths, now," he said. "Their efforts in engaging the right people have proved woefully inadequate – they always seem to be leading from the rear.”