U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged to ramp up coronavirus testing to 100,000 a day — still less than half the level pledged by his boss — amid mounting criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.
Emerging from a week in isolation after falling sick with the virus himself, Hancock sought to show the government is in control of the situation after a slew of reports in the U.K. media criticizing ministers for acting too late in tackling the pandemic, leaving the National Health Service ill-equipped and unable to test the population in sufficient numbers.
Acknowledging that the government deserves some criticism, Hancock pledged to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, a massive increase over the current capacity of 12,750 — but still far short of the 250,000-a-day target Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last month.
Less than a month after the government said widespread testing for coronavirus was no longer necessary, Hancock described it on Thursday as “mission critical” for the U.K.’s ability to get through the pandemic and end a nationwide lockdown that has put normal economic life on hold.
The confusion surrounding the government’s testing strategy has been politically damaging for Johnson, who has taken personal responsibility for ramping up the number of assessments. Much of the media’s focus has been on why the U.K. lags behind neighboring countries, in particular Germany, which has been conducting more than 50,000 tests a day.
Anyone Who Needs One
“We did not start this crisis with a large diagnostics industry — but that doesn’t mean that we cannot build one,” Hancock said at a televised press conference in Downing Street. “Our ultimate goal is that anyone who needs a test should have one.”
But even as he announced the new targets, there were signs of slippage. Hancock’s end-of-April target included both antibody tests — showing who has had the virus — and at least 25,000 antigen tests showing who currently has the disease. The government had aimed to be carrying out that number of those tests alone by the middle of the month.
Hancock also said:
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In a video message late Wednesday, Johnson appeared to acknowledge the severity of the situation — as well as the political reality that unfavorable comparisons with other nations are unlikely to go away unless U.K. capacity is increased.
He promised to “massively ramp-up” testing, which he described as “the way through” and “how we unlock the coronavirus puzzle.”
The lack of testing capacity is having an immediate impact on the state-run NHS’s capacity to cope with the outbreak because front-line workers with symptoms — or living in households with other people showing them — are self-isolating to avoid the risk of infecting their patients.
More than 5,000 tests on front-line NHS staff have been completed, Hancock said, and the government wants to ensure all of them are tested by the end of the month. The government is working with private companies, universities and other laboratories to boost capacity, he added.
Hancock announced the U.K. is also looking at introducing certificates for people who have had the coronavirus and are thus immune from infection as a way of potentially easing social-distancing measures — though he warned that the science of coronavirus immunity is still in its infancy.
Speaking alongside Hancock, NHS England Medical Director Stephen Powis said there is “early” academic evidence that the U.K.’s transmission rate — the so-called r0 number — has fallen below one.
“That’s important, because if it’s the case that we are no longer passing the virus on to multiple people — so to less than one person for everybody who’s infected — then that is additional evidence that infections are going to reduce,” he said.
Johnson, who continues to have mild symptoms of the virus, is also under fire over the decision to halt widespread testing in March. Instead, the government chose to limit tests to patients who were taken to hospital showing the likely symptoms of Covid-19.
Health officials and some of his advisers have since indicated the decision was based on a lack of capacity as the disease spread in greater numbers. But the policy also reflected the pursuit of so-called herd immunity, which Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said at the time would need 60% of the U.K. population to catch the disease to work.
The strategy was abandoned when scientific modeling made clear the NHS didn’t have enough critical care beds to cope with the likely number of critically-ill patients it would lead to. The government has since said it now sees widespread testing as the key to getting through the pandemic, including ending a nationwide lockdown.
“This is how we will defeat it in the end,” Johnson said.
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