Boris Johnson defends UK coronavirus testing as 'most thorough in Europe'

16 September 2020, 10:22 | Updated: 16 September 2020, 16:34

Boris Johnson to face PMQs as coronavirus testing shortage continues
Boris Johnson to face PMQs as coronavirus testing shortage continues. Picture: PA
Rachael Kennedy

By Rachael Kennedy

Boris Johnson has defended the UK's coronavirus testing system as "the most thorough" in Europe amid concerns about soaring demand.

The prime minister made the comments as he went head-to-head with deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner at PMQs on Wednesday, and comes after a turbulent 24 hours in which plans were revealed for rationing.

"We have delivered the most thorough testing regime in anywhere in Europe, and the number of tests per day conducted has gone up from 210,000 last week to 240,000 this week," Mr Johnson insisted to Ms Rayner, who was standing in for Sir Keir Starmer while he awaited the results of a COVID-19 test for a family member.

He added: "In other words, we are delivering exactly what we said we would do.

"What is happening is the British people, quite understandably, are responding to that system with a huge, huge surge in demand.

"And so it's important that everybody follows the guidance about when they should be getting a test."

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Later on Wednesday, Mr Johnson will face a further grilling on recent events from select committee chairs at the Liaison Committee.

He is expected to answer questions relating to his response to the pandemic as well as his approach to Brexit negotiations and the Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, security and international development.

It comes amid a rocky couple of days for the government after it was revealed COVID-19 tests would need to be rationed; systems were reported to be buckling under demand, and reports of people turning up at A&E to get tested.

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"Very busy emergency department today as poorly people unable to get a test come to us for help," Bolton NHS Foundation Trust chairwoman Professor Donna Hall said on Tuesday.

"This is why it's so important to have a functioning testing and tracing system - one day of delays can cause hundreds more infections.

"This is a very worrying situation for us in Bolton."

The government is also expected to release plans on those considered a "priority" for testing in the coming days, with NHS and care workers, and school children and their families topping the charter.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned on Tuesday that it would be "a matter of weeks" before testing issues were resolved as he announced his rationing plans, rekindling further fears of losing control in approach to the winter months.

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A senior source in Whitehall said they believed it was going to be "a problem for six months" and that anyone who thinks otherwise is "extremely optimistic".

The same source added that while the current number of COVID-19 hospital admissions was quite low, "the direction of travel is only going to go one way, in my view between now and the winter, which is up."

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But Justice Secretary Robert Buckland also defended the government's position on Wednesday, saying capacity had been ramping up alongside demand.

He told LBC: "Capacity is trying to meet increased demand. So we've got issues with lab testing; we're increasing the number of laboratories, we're increasing the number of test centres, but I accept there's more work to be done."

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Mr Buckland said in other interviews that he expected children and their parents to be given priority for tests in order to avoid the disruption they had already experienced since schools reopened.

According to Oasis Community Learning, which is responsible for 31,500 children at 52 academies in England, around 1,200 children had been sent home in the first six days of the school year.

The organisation's founder, Steve Chalke, told The Sun: "The reason is either pupils or teachers have symptoms and can't return until they get a negative test result."

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Just minutes prior to the start of PMQs on Wednesday, Sir Keir Starmer revealed the coronavirus result for one of his children had returned as a negative.

The Labour leader had been isolating for the last few days after appearing on LBC due to someone in his household exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

He said in a tweet that he was "pleased and relieved" to receive the negative result.

"Thank you to the NHS hospital where my wife works for ensuring that their staff and family members have quick access to a test," he wrote.