Government faces questions over lack of coronavirus testing in the UK

1 April 2020, 12:36

Government minister Robert Jenrick
Government minister Robert Jenrick. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

A government minister today waded into the furore over coronavirus testing, saying the UK will not reach full capacity until mid-April because of difficulties in getting hold of vital chemicals.

Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick told LBC the Government was "trying to ramp up production of testing as quickly as we can" and was working to secure the chemicals required for the tests.

But he was at odds with the UK's Chemicals Industry Association who insisted today that the UK has all the required chemicals for the tests.

READ MORE: Follow the latest coronavirus developments LIVE

Mr Jenrick said the priority is testing NHS staff, revealing over the weekend 900 healthcare workers were tested for coronavirus.

He told LBC's Nick Ferrari today that the NHS tested "8,240 people" but they now have the capacity to test "more than 12,000" people per day.

But the minister said testing had proved slower "than we would have liked to increase production to the level we need as a country" but he said access to some reagents were an "issue".

He said getting access to "all of the ingredients" had proved "something of a challenge."

Some of the much-needed ingredients are being imported from other countries, Mr Jenrick said: "As you would expect with the nature of a global pandemic demand is very high for them."

"As I understand it, we don't have access to all of the ingredients that we need. And we are starting to ramp up production quite significantly.

"We now have a capacity for more than 12,000. Within days, we expect that to be 15,000 and we'll move forward to our target of 25,000 by the middle of April."

"Testing is a crucial part of the UK's response and we're working on multiple fronts to increase testing capacity.

"Germany has a large number of testing labs with well-developed pharma and biotech industries able to do this. We also have strengths in these fields and we also have strengths in other industries, as we've seen with ventilators.

"So British businesses are stepping up, but they do have different underlying strengths than countries like Germany."

After asking why one UK company is selling coronavirus tests abroad, Nick Ferrari asked: "People are starting to question the level of candour that is coming from your government as regards to testing kits, as regards to chemicals and these reagents.

"Are you aware there is a line over which you will accidentally tread and they won't believe a word you and your colleagues are saying?"

Mr Jenrick responded: "It's important for a government to always be candid. We have always followed expert medical and scientific opinion. That has been the rail we have clung to with all the decisions we have made."

Citing British manufacturing as one of the country's strengths, Mr Jenrick said he believed ventilators would be a good example of British manufacturing coming through.

When Nick Ferrari questioned the minister on comments by the Chemicals Industry Association, Mr Jenrick said: "as I understand it we don't have access to all the chemicals we need."

On Monday, Michael Gove said: "One of the constraints on our capacity to increase testing overall is supply of the specific reagents, the specific chemicals, that are needed in order to make sure that tests are reliable."

A fact disputed by the industry association.

Mr Jenrick told LBC the country was starting to "ramp up production quite significantly" for Covid-19 testing kits.

He said "within days" the testing capacity would increase to 15,000 and then the Government would aim to meet its target to testing 25,000 people a day "by the middle of April."On the suggestion that Britain, in comparison to Germany, has not prepared properly to run a comprehensive testing system, he said: "I accept that we do need to ramp up production significantly. It isn't easy to procure the tests in a global pandemic because there is a great deal of demand."

He said testing was a "crucial part of the UK's response" to the coronavirus pandemic.

When Nick Ferrari asked why 17 million testing kits had been sold overseas instead of being used in the UK, the minister said the Government was working with British manufacturers.

"We will buy any tests as long as they are up to standards in the UK."