The Times view on No 10’s handling of coronavirus: Failed Test

An investigation into the strains on the test and trace programme strengthens the case for a minister to take charge.

Three weeks ago the health secretary Matt Hancock said that the problems in the test and trace programme would be fixed within a fortnight. Two weeks ago he said they would be fixed “within weeks”. Yet here we are at the start of October and the problems are unfixed. An investigation by an undercover Times reporter who spent last week working at a large testing centre near Stoke reveals a system in trouble. Faced with a backlog of unprocessed tests at laboratories, the government has introduced strict new daily limits on testing. As a result, on one day this week a facility that just weeks ago was testing up to 500 people a day had tested only 100 by 5pm, a few hours before it closed. Staff were being told to turn away those with symptoms or who had been referred by their GPs unless they had made a booking online.

It does not seem likely that these problems will be resolved in anything like the timescale suggested by Mr Hancock. A new so-called Lighthouse laboratory near Loughborough, which is supposed to provide capacity for 50,000 more tests a day by the end of the year, was meant to come on stream at the end of last month. That has now been delayed by at least a month. Another lab in Newport, due to come on stream in August, has been delayed until November. The government insists the backlog reflects unexpectedly high demand for tests, though why a surge in demand as schools and universities reopened was not anticipated is not clear. A bigger problem appears to be a shortage of laboratory staff as students employed over the summer return to university. Again, it is hard to understand why this was not foreseen.

That is not to deny the impressive progress that has been made in building up Britain’s testing capacity over the past six months. From what was effectively a standing start in April, just under 265,000 tests were carried out on Thursday. That’s more per head of the population than almost any other country. Official data shows that NHS Test and Trace now has capacity for 1.8 million swab tests a week across five Lighthouse labs and NHS-run facilities. The government’s target is to hit 500,000 tests a day by the end of this month.

The problem is that too often this capacity is in the wrong places, or not available to those who need it, while the results themselves are taking too long to arrive. Many people are still having to travel long distances to take tests, if they can book one at all.

A Times data analysis which sought to book a test using 50 nearby postcodes every hour for 48 hours found that appointments were only available 17 per cent of the time. The result is that some people may be forced to isolate unnecessarily, while others who may be infected are continuing to spread the virus and their contacts are going untraced. Perhaps most troublingly, the promised weekly testing of NHS staff in hotspot areas is still not being delivered. That risks further disruption of non-Covid healthcare, longer waiting lists and increased deaths from other causes.

These latest disclosures only strengthen the case for Boris Johnson to appoint a minister with specific responsibility for the pandemic response. Too often the government’s reaction appears to be driven by the need to hit arbitrary political targets rather than a strategy to ensure tests are available where and when they are most needed. The pressures are likely only to intensify over the winter. Indeed the roll-out of a vaccine, should one materialise, will pose an even greater logistical challenge. Mr Hancock already has his hands full dealing with the NHS and tackling the crisis in social care. This challenge is too important to be left to an unelected figure such as Baroness Harding of Winscombe, the chief of NHS Test and Trace, who is also overseeing a Whitehall reorganisation. There is no greater priority facing the country. That requires a minister able to give it their full attention.