Covid test demand is 'multiples' of UK's capacity - Test and Trace chair

17 September 2020, 15:49 | Updated: 17 September 2020, 17:24

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The UK's demand for coronavirus tests is "multiples" of the country's current capacity, Chair of NHS Test and Trace Baroness Dido Harding has said.

The interim executive chair of the national institute of health protection is currently facing questions from the Commons Science and Technology Committee - the first time she has spoken in public since August.

Baroness Harding told the hearing that the number of people calling 119 - the NHS Test and Trace number - and visiting the website would be "three to four times the number of tests we currently have available".

However, she added that there would be "some double-counting in that" as some people will visit the website on a number of devices or call the system from a couple of phone numbers.

The testing chief was pressed on the issue of demand by the chair of the committee, Greg Clark MP, who said: "If you're managing the system, you must have a view of what the real demand is and what the capacity is."

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Baroness Harding told the hearing test demand is outweighing capacity
Baroness Harding told the hearing test demand is outweighing capacity. Picture: UK Parliament

He then asked: "How many people want a test? And then we'll relate that to how many tests are available."

"It is multiples of the total test capacity we have today," she replied.

"Bearing in mind the question you asked chair, 'what is demand?', the number of symptomatic people who should be coming forward for a test will be significantly lower than that.

"What we have got, and we know this from surveys in our testing sites, that up to 20-25% of people who've been coming forward for a test don't have any symptoms."

The Test and Trace chief was also asked whether she was suggesting that those people who turn up at testing sites despite being asymptomatic were lying about having symptoms.

She resoundingly refuted this suggestion, saying that, according to surveys her team had conducted, "27% of people said they were there because they had been in contact with someone who had tested positive, but they didn't have symptoms themselves".

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The baroness added that it is "totally understandable" for people to want to be tested when they have come into contact with someone who is infected.

"Generally, if we have people who are walking up having either booked a test or asking for one, who are brilliant people who are manning the hundreds of testing sites across the country, we don't want to push away people who are scared.

"But we do have a significant number of people who are coming forward for tests who don't have symptoms."

The current capacity for both NHS testing (Pillar 1) and the national testing programme (Pillar 2) stands at 242,817 tests per day, she confirmed.

The baroness also suggested that the delay in returning test results was intentional.

She said: "I strongly refute that the system is failing. We made a conscious decision because of the huge increase in demand to extend the turnaround times in order to process more tests, over the course of the last couple of weeks."

It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted to the Commons Liaison Committee on Wednesday that the UK "does not have enough testing capacity" as the current system stands.

His admission followed an investigation into the availability of tests by LBC which found there were no tests available for the top 10 hotspots in England and, on Wednesday, only two of the 48 English hotspots had tests available for people trying to book via the government website.

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