Ministers have been accused of putting lives at risk by failing to rapidly expand testing for coronavirus as promised, after fewer than 5,000 people were tested in one day.
Critics said the government had been misleading people about the scale of its testing programme as it became clear the UK has still not met its initial aim of 10,000 daily tests.
Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, claimed over the weekend that the goal had been met. But it emerged on Monday that the level of testing had dipped over the weekend, with just 4,908 people tested in the 24 hours before 9am on Sunday.
On Friday, 9,114 tests were carried out on about 6,900 people, with the disparity due to the need for multiple tests following inconclusive results. This dropped on Saturday to 8,278 tests on 4,908 patients – the latest figures available.
The numbers contrast sharply with those of other countries such as Germany, which is conducting around 70,000 tests daily, or half a million a week.
After the data showed yet another drop in UK testing, Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary and Tory chair of the Commons health select committee, as well as opposition parties called on the government to focus on increasing mass testing across the country to detect, isolate and prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has killed 1,408 people in the UK so far. The World Health Organization has urged countries to “test, test, test”.
“The big advantage we now have is evidence that testing works in other countries. We can see that Asian countries have been spectacularly more successful than European ones in avoiding mass lockdown,” Hunt told the Guardian.
A senior source at the Department of Health and Social Care said the UK did not have as much domestic laboratory capacity as Germany but had been working hard to increase numbers.
However, another Whitehall source said the UK’s main problem was that it had tried to source the tests too late after changing strategy in favour of a lockdown, and was now facing stiff competition from other countries around the world.
Keir Starmer, the favourite to become Labour leader, said it was “deeply worrying that the number of people being tested for coronavirus has fallen”.
“Experts across the world have been clear that the best chance we have of fighting this pandemic is to significantly increase the number of people who are being tested, particularly health workers,” he said.
“Ministers need to explain why the NHS is not testing to capacity, why we are falling behind other countries and what measures they will put in place to address this situation as a matter of urgency.”
Munira Wilson, a Liberal Democrat MP and the party spokeswoman on health, also accused the government of having been “not only misleading but reckless” in failing to reach the promised number of tests.
“Stopping the spread of coronavirus is hugely dependent on the public trusting the information and advice the government provides. This sort of behaviour puts that at risk and endangers us all as a result,” she said.
The government has until the last few days limited testing to people with suspected coronavirus in hospitals, care homes and prisons. But it expanded testing to around 900 NHS workers over the weekend and has pledged to increase that further as numbers ramp up. However, it has not set out any plans to widen testing to all suspected cases, as happens in countries such as South Korea.
It is almost three weeks since ministers first promised an increase in testing to 10,000 a day, which has still not been met. The next target, set by Hancock on 18 March, was for testing to increase to 25,000 a day within four weeks of that date.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the target was on course to be met, but Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, suggested in a press conference on Monday that it could take another month to reach. She referred to the “25,000 tests per day that Public Health England and NHS England are well on the way to meeting by mid-to-late April”.
Asked about the government’s failure to reach the 10,000 target, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said: “We are operating on multiple fronts to increase the testing. We want to scale that up as swiftly as possible but it has got to be reliable.”
Downing Street appeared to blame Public Health England for the false claim by Gove, saying he had been relying on information given to him by the health experts.
After a week of lockdown conditions in the UK, government advisers said there was some signs the spread of the virus may be slowing.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said Johnson’s guidance on social distancing had been “successful in terms of behaviour changes”, with data showing “a dramatic fall-off in the use of the London tube, bus routes, rail and motor vehicles”.
The rate of hospital admissions was advancing at a steady rate and now stood at 8,000, Vallance said. He said this “may suggest we are beginning to see some effects through” from the government’s initial social distancing advice, announced two weeks ago.