Government still only one fifth towards target of 100,000 coronavirus tests each day

21 April 2020, 23:06

The government still has someway to go until it reaches its target of 100,000 tests a day
The government still has someway to go until it reaches its target of 100,000 tests a day. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

The Government is still only around a fifth of the way towards its promise of 100,000 tests per day across the UK by the end of April, according to latest figures.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock made the promise last month, and is now facing just over a week before that deadline is reached.

In the 24 hours leading to 9am on Tuesday, 18,206 were carried out, despite there being a capacity for 39,250 tests to have been carried out in the same time period.

Last week when questioned about the issue, Mr Hancock said there was "not enough demand" for the testing capacity to be filled, despite repeated calls for testing to be ramped up in order to better contain the spread of the virus.

Downing Street insisted Prime Minister Boris Johnson - who is continuing his recovery from Covid-19 - had full confidence in Mr Hancock and the testing target.

It comes as Gary McFarlane, who is leading on testing and contact tracing for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said Northern Ireland is ready to look at introducing contact tracing to help curb the spread of Covid-19 there.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously made the promise to reach the target by the end of April
Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously made the promise to reach the target by the end of April. Picture: Downing Street

Testing and contact tracing is seen as a way out of lockdown by isolating people with symptoms and their contacts, thereby slowing down routes of transmission.

Mr McFarlane denied reports that its offer of 5,000 members of staff to help with contact tracing had been turned down by ministers.

But he said that more than 400 registered environmental health practitioners across the UK had signed up to offer help in the fight against Covid-19.

He said Northern Ireland was ready to launch a pilot of contact tracing to help curb the spread of the virus there.

"Our infection levels are considerably lower than rest of the UK," he said. "In Northern Ireland, they are trying to get this up and running.

"Contact tracing and testing are vital, they go hand in glove. If we don't have that in place, we're just going to see cases spread again and we're going to be no better off.

"Certainly the people who have put their name on this volunteer register we have set up have said they will help and they are skilled to do this.

Only half of the testing capacity is being filled currently
Only half of the testing capacity is being filled currently. Picture: PA

"In addition, we have signposted Public Health England to local government sector because there may be additional people there who can help."

Mr Hancock told a Downing Street briefing on Tuesday that the Government was now piloting sending swabs to people's homes, for those who were unable to access testing centres.

"We have introduced home-testing, where a test can be sent out and taken and then returned, so that the individual doesn't need to move," he said.

This will be "particularly helpful" for people living in care homes, he added.

Also on Tuesday, a report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change argued that mass testing of the British population is needed and "planning to scale operations must commence immediately."

It says a testing minister must be appointed and the Government must scale up antigen (swab) testing by every means possible.

Mass community testing would lead to a clearer picture of how many people are infected with Covid-19 across the UK.

The new study calls on ministers to also recognise the importance of antibody tests to see whether people have had the virus previously and says the Government must "not let perfection be the enemy of good enough".

Daniel Sleat, co-author of the paper, said the paper "sets out a path for the Government to reach mass community testing.

"This must form a central element in any credible and sustainable exit from lockdown.

"To achieve this ambition the Government must make systemic and structural changes in the coming weeks - including appointing a senior minister responsible solely for testing."

Dr Adam Kucharski, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said contact tracing was a vital route out of lockdown but would need to be combined with other measures.

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He said that even South Korea and Singapore, which had good contact tracing, had needed to rely on other measures.

"I think the most likely way forward is even if we could use contact tracing to reduce transmission by 40%, that's a reduction we don't have to try and achieve through tougher measures.

"But contact tracing alone won't be enough, you will need another additional measure or measures to ensure control."

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt took to social media on Monday to say contact tracing "needs to be our next national mission".

Mr Hunt, who is chairman of the Health Select Committee, added on Tuesday: "Mass contact tracing is the only internationally proven alternative to mass lockdown. We need to act fast."

The Government has come under intense scrutiny over its testing and contact tracing policy after Public Health England advised ministers in early March that contact tracing should be stopped.

Mr Hancock told MPs on Friday that contact tracing was part of the strategy going forward and would be introduced again, admitting that "it wasn't possible when we had a small number of tests".

The Government is hoping that a contact tracing app being developed by NHSX, the technology arm of the NHS, will enable larger-scale contact tracing and will "assist individuals to do contact tracing themselves", Mr Hancock said.