Matt Hancock writes off £13.4bn of NHS debt and announces major testing ramp-up

2 April 2020, 18:09

By Matt Drake

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that the government will wipe off £13billion of NHS debt and ramp-up coronavirus testing to 100,000 a day.

In the government's daily press conference on the fight against Covid-19, Mr Hancock said the historic move will enable the health service to respond better to the pandemic and ensure it is better prepared in the long-term.

He also said that while Public Health England has delivered a novel test at record-breaking speed, the UK still faces big challenges.

Read more: Two more Nightingale hospitals to open in Bristol and Harrogate

Defending the speed of the roll-out of testing, Mr Hancock said public confidence in the tests is just as important as how quickly they are made available.

He claims one of the tests the UK has assessed recently missed three out of four positive Covid-19 cases.

Rolling them out would mean NHS frontline staff could be sent back to work even if they are sick, he added.

In order to achieve 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month, the government will introduce a "five-pillar plan" for testing.

This includes:

1. Swab testing in PHE labs and within NHS hospital to find out who currently has the virus

2. Swab testing with commercial partners such as Amazon, Boots and university new network labs will be used to test people for the virus

3. Blood tests will be carried out to check if people had the virus and are now immune

4. Surveillance by conducting surveys to find out what proportion of the population has the virus and using an antibody test to track the spread of the virus

5. Building new industry by collaborating between pharmaceutical companies and other businesses to build ventilators and other vital equipment

The Health Secretary, speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, said he had made £300 million available for community pharmacies and that he wanted to make sure "every part" of the health and care system is supported.

He added: "Today, to help NHS trusts to deliver what's needed without worrying about past finances, I can announce that I'm writing off £13.4 billion of historic NHS debt.

"This landmark step will not only put the NHS in a stronger position to be able to respond to this global coronavirus pandemic, but it will ensure that our NHS has stronger foundations for the future too."

Mr Hancock said the UK lacked a large diagnostics industry so was having to build from a "lower base" than the likes of Germany, which is testing at greater levels for coronavirus.

He said a country-wide shortage of swabs had been "resolved" but that there remained a "global challenge" around sourcing the reagent chemicals needed for the tests.

The Cabinet minister defended his decision to prioritise testing of patients over NHS staff and said he thought any health secretary would have done the same.

Mr Hancock said: "I understand why NHS staff want tests, so they can get back to the front line, of course I do.

"But I took the decision that the first priority has to be the patients for whom the results of a test could be the difference in treatment that is the difference between life and death.

"I believe anybody in my shoes would have taken the same decision."

Mr Hancock, who has recovered from Covid-19 and came out of self-isolation on Thursday, said he came back "redoubled in my determination to fight this virus with everything I've got".

"And we will strain every sinew to defeat it once and for all.

"And I will stop at nothing to make sure that frontline staff have the right equipment so that they are safe and can have the confidence they need to do their jobs."

Mr Hancock paid an emotional tribute to NHS staff who have lost their lives, and expressed his "deepest condolences" to the friends and families of all coronavirus victims.

"If the past few weeks have shown us anything, it's that we are steadfast as a country in our resolve to defeat this invisible killer," he said.

"I am profoundly moved by the compassion and the commitment that we are seeing from people right across the country, and in the health and care system we have lost colleagues too.

"Doctors, nurses, mental health professionals: they have paid the ultimate price for their service - working to care for others.

"I just want to say this on behalf of all my colleagues in health and social care: I am awed by the dedication of colleagues on the frontline, every single person, who contributes to the running of this diverse and caring institution that our nation holds so dear.

"Many of those who have died who are from the NHS were people who came to this country to make a difference, and they did, and they've given their lives in sacrifice, and we salute them."

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