Government 'very poor' at anticipating pandemic issues, says Tory MP

16 September 2020, 21:14

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The government "has been very poor at anticipating what is coming next" in the coronavirus pandemic, Conservative MP Greg Clark has said.

The former business secretary was speaking with LBC's Westminster Correspondent Ben Kentish on Wednesday evening following his appearance on the Commons Liaison Committee earlier in the day.

During the hearing, Mr Clark questioned Prime Minister Boris Johnson on whether the UK currently has enough testing capacity available, to which the UK leader replied: "The short answer to that is no, we don't."

It comes after LBC revealed the scope of the issues surrounding testing, namely that there were no tests available for the top 10 coronavirus hotspots in England.

An extended investigation has since found that only two of the 48 Covid-19 hotspots in England had tests available for people trying to book via the government website on Wednesday.

Following the probe, No 10 announced it will be reviewing the criteria for who can book a test.

Read more: 'We don't have enough testing capacity', Boris Johnson admits

Read more: Govt will do 'everything in its power' to prevent second national lockdown

Greg Clark told LBC the government has been poor at anticipating pandemic issues
Greg Clark told LBC the government has been poor at anticipating pandemic issues. Picture: PA

Mr Clark said LBC's report highlighted how the unavailability of tests showed that people's stories were not just "one-off cases" or just "anecdotal evidence", but instead underlined a "substantial problem with testing".

"I think the story throughout the pandemic is that the government has been very poor at anticipating what is coming next," he told Ben Kentish.

"Right from the outset, we didn't have enough testing capacity. We were slow to develop that. Eventually we did and it took the personal intervention from Matt Hancock to surge it.

"But what we didn't anticipate this time was that it was obvious that when the schools were going back in September there would be a big increase in the demand for testing, let alone the rising incidence of the disease."

Read more: Ebbsfleet Covid test centre shut to become post-Brexit lorry park

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The former business secretary said it should have been clear that when children returned to schools they would naturally develop coughs, sneezes, sore throats and temperatures - mostly unrelated to coronavirus - and would therefore need testing.

"We should have used the summer to have that capacity in place so that when it came to September we'd have plenty of capacity, people could be tested, their results turned around straight away and we could have proceeded in an orderly way," he continued.

Ben Kentish then asked the MP whether ministers were complacent over the summer period when cases were going down and there were enough tests to go round.

He replied: "Well certainly I think the eye was taken off the ball and it should have been used to prepare for the future, to surge capacity.

"But now, the prime minister said to me in the Liaison Committee today that they're going to increase capacity to 500,000 a day by the end of October.

"But actually that surge is now going to happen during a time when there are shortages and when people need it.

"It should have been done in June, July and August so that it was ready now."

Mr Clark told LBC that the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) reports that every winter roughly 500,000 people a day show Covid-like symptoms.

This, he said, does not take into account a severe winter or one that will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Therefore, even if the government hits its target of testing half-a-million people by the end of October, this might not be enough to cover the number of people who need a test, he explained.

However, the former business secretary said setting ambitious targets was "right" and that it worked during April's surge of infections.

The MP then accused Health Secretary Matt Hancock of "flimflam" and "spin" over testing in recent weeks, urging him to be "straight with the public" about the country's insufficient testing capacity.

When asked during the select committee whether 500,000 tests a day by the end of October would be enough, Mr Johnson told MPs he "sincerely hopes" so.

During Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, the UK leader defended Britain's testing regime as "the most thorough" in Europe despite concerns over demand.

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