Blair LBC exclusive: Test everyone to beat Covid crisis

12 September 2020, 21:59 | Updated: 13 September 2020, 16:13

Tony Blair has said people without coronavirus symptoms should be tested
Tony Blair has said people without coronavirus symptoms should be tested. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Former prime minister Tony Blair has told LBC in an exclusive interview that the way to defeat coronavirus is through testing as many people as possible whether or not they have symptoms.

The ex-Labour leader urged the government "to use all the testing capability at our disposal... even if they (tests) are not fully accurate".

Speaking with LBC host Ruth Davidson as part of her new show An Inconvenient Ruth - which will be broadcast on Sunday at 9pm - Mr Blair said that although "you can't eradicate" Covid-19, the UK would have to "live with it" until a vaccine is found.

He told the presenter that because the "largest part" of those who become infected with the virus do not show symptoms, it was "sensible" for a wide-scale testing regime to be implemented.

Read more: Concerns raised over '£100bn cost' of Moonshot Covid-19 testing plans

Read more: Hancock warns of surge in people with no symptoms seeking Covid-19 tests

"That's why literally for six months I've focused on the issue of testing and we have got to use all the testing capability at our disposal, and for reasons that I completely understand but disagree with, at the moment we're only testing people with symptoms," he explained.

"The largest part of the people who get this disease are asymptomatic, so they don't know that they've got it, so if you're only testing people with symptoms, you're missing the majority of people.

"Even if using all these tests that are available, even if these tests are not fully accurate, enough of them are accurate enough in my view to make it sensible to make them available, because you will at least have the best chance of picking up large numbers of asymptomatic people, whereas at the moment you're not picking up virtually any of them."

In June, Mr Blair called for mass testing to be rolled out in order to limit the spread of coronavirus. He is now demanding the government ensures it uses all its available capacity for tests.

Watch: Shadow Foreign Secretary lambasts Government messaging around testing

Read more: Boris Johnson defends Covid-19 test system at PMQs

Currently, people are mostly tested if they have Covid-19 symptoms, such as a cough, fever or loss of sense of taste or smell.

Earlier this week Health Secretary Matt Hancock said roughly a quarter of people getting tests do not have symptoms and those showing signs of the virus should be given priority.

Speaking on LBC's Nick Ferrari at breakfast on Wednesday, Mr Hancock said: “We have record numbers going through the testing system, but unfortunately the number of people who aren't eligible coming forward has gone up.

“So we have to be really clear that if you have symptoms please come forward and get a test, but I want those tests to be available for people with symptoms.”

Read more: 3,497 new cases in 24 hours as Covid resurges across UK

Read more: Heathrow boss urges government to fast track 20-second Covid test

However, leaked documents seen by the British Medical Journal suggest that the "Operation Moonshot" project - which would see millions of UK-wide tests carried out daily - could have a price tag close to that of the entire £114 billion budget given to NHS England in 2018/19.

On Thursday, Dr Chris Papadopoulos, Principal Lecturer in Public Health at the University of Bedfordshire, told LBC’s Nick Ferrari: “In principle, mass testing on that kind of scale would be enormously beneficial to us but it lacks any credibility to me.

"There have been many claims about testing capacity… and they haven’t really come to bear. Our testing systems have been very bumpy.

“To get this working, messaging is going to be absolutely vital. My fear is at the moment people just aren’t going to buy into it.”

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the success of Moonshot would depend on how it is handled.

She told ITV's Robert Peston: "We do want to get back to as much normality as we can and any opportunity to do that through a new testing programme or using different testing technology is clearly a good thing to be following, but it's not quite as simple as just doing that."

Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy told LBC the government's messaging around coronavirus testing is unclear and she called on Mr Hancock to offer clarity.

She said she is hopeful about "Operation Moonshot" but added that we need an "element of realism".

"We've currently got a situation where people in places like Wigan can't even get a test, or are being asked to go hundreds of miles to get one," the MP for the town said.

Ms Nandy called for an acknowledgement that there are problems in the current system before the UK moves on to mass testing.

"You can't just put the same plans in place that aren't currently working... and expect the problems to miraculously disappear," she told Nick Ferrari.

During Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, the prime minister defended the UK's coronavirus testing system after being challenged by Sir Keir Starmer.

The Labour leader said the issue of people being sent all over the country for tests "can't be brushed off" adding "it's got a lot worse in the last week or two and everyone in this house knows it".

"This is a very serious issue, the government line on this seems to be changing all the time," he said.

Mr Johnson replied to Sir Keir: "Demand is at an unprecedented high. This country has done more tests, 17.6 million, than any country in Europe.

"That is thanks to the efforts of NHS test and trace.

"They are in my view doing an absolutely heroic job. This is an organisation that is working heroically to contain the spread of this disease and it requires the public to trust this organisation and to participate."

This week, ministers have faced increasing pressure in recent days over the availability of tests, with many people reporting being sent hundreds of miles from home to get checked for the virus.

During Wednesday's Downing Street briefing, Mr Johnson said he hoped that "we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas" and pointed to mass testing as something which could help society open back up further.

On Saturday, a further 3,497 people tested positive for Covid-19 - the highest Saturday rise since early May.

It is the second consecutive day that over 3,000 people have tested positive across the UK, as fears grow that the country could be facing a second wave of the virus.

A further nine have died within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, bringing the UK's death toll to 41,623.

However, separate figures published by the UK's statistics agencies show there have now been 57,400 deaths registered in Britain where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

Meanwhile, data released by the Government Office for Science and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Friday showed that the estimated R number across the UK is between 1.0 and 1.2.

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