Matt Hancock denies that government didn’t plan for spike in testing demand


Matt Hancock has denied the Government failed to plan for a surge in demand for coronavirus tests, and claimed the spike at up to four times capacity was ‘very, very hard to predict’.

Batting off criticism, he blamed the public of applying for tests when they didn’t have symptoms and accused Britons in self-isolation of trying to get tests so that they could get out of it.

Defending his handling of the testing fiasco, the Health Secretary claimed: ‘Of course we knew that demand was going to go up, the challenge has been that it has gone up incredibly high including among the people who do not have symptoms, who are not eligible for tests.

‘We model the amount of demand among people who are eligible. The fact that there’s been such a spike from those for whom a test won’t help… that is very, very hard to predict that there’d be this behavioural change.’

Testing tsar Baroness Harding faced a grilling from MPs yesterday as she bleated that ‘no one saw’ the surge in demand, despite repeated warnings that Britons returning to schools and offices would lead to additional pressure on the system. 

Amid mounting pressures in the testing system, test and trace is also ‘barely functional’, with staff taking as long as 14 days to contact the friends, relatives and colleagues of those who test positive.

Labs are also in chaos with staff and equipment shortages, failure to set up automated processes, and systems that require 20 different types of test tubes.

Matt Hancock has admitted he did plan for a spike in demand, but claimed the enormous surge they have seen was ‘very, very hard to predict’

Testing tsar Baroness Harding faced a grilling from MPs yesterday as the wheels began to come off the UK's 'world-leading' testing system

Testing tsar Baroness Harding faced a grilling from MPs yesterday as the wheels began to come off the UK’s ‘world-leading’ testing system

When should I get a coronavirus test?

People suffering from coronavirus symptoms should get a test within five days of symptoms appearing, the NHS says. 

Its advice page says anyone suffering from the symptoms – a high temperature, continuous cough and loss of their sense of taste or smell – to get tested as soon as they can. 

‘If you have symptoms, get a test as soon as possible,’ they said. ‘You need to get the test done in the first five days of having symptoms’.

But amid England’s mounting testing fiasco – with people in virus hotspots unable to access any swabs – a message has been posted saying those unable to get tested should ‘try again in a few hours’.

Who should get tested for coronavirus?

The NHS says that anyone who develops symptoms of coronavirus should get a test. These are:

  • a high temperature
  • New continuous cough
  • Loss of sense of taste and smell 

They add that a select group of other people will also be able to access testing. These are people who: 

  • Live in England and have been told to get a test before entering hospital for surgery
  • Asked to by their local council
  • Are taking part in a government pilot project 

Who should not get a coronavirus test?

Matt Hancock has claimed up to one-in-four tests are being given out to people who are not eligible for them.

He said he has heard stories of whole schools applying for them after one case of coronavirus was recorded there, and of people getting them because they are going on holiday.

This is not what the testing system has been designed for, he said. and it means that people who need a test cannot get one.

Source: NHS 

Seeking to blame the public for the testing crisis, Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that demand for tests has ‘gone through the roof’.

‘The reason I defend so fiercely the people who are building our testing capability is that they have been, they were given, a trajectory to hit that was based on the science and they are on track to deliver that growth.

‘Now of course I want it to go as fast as possible and we have put huge resources into this and there’s new technologies some of which are in the News today coming onboard.

‘But, you know, driving that as fast as possible has been the goal and then we’ve had this massive increase in demand from people who aren’t eligible.

‘Over summer we built the capacity, we automated parts of the process, putting in place new machines, opening new labs, we’ve been building this capacity over the summer and working incredibly hard all the way through.’

He added: ‘At the start of last week we saw demand was shooting up. We could have reduced the over 100,000 tests a day that are sent to social care – and that would have taken a load of noise out of the system.

‘But I refused to do that and the Prime Minister actively backed this decision because that’s where tests are needed more than anywhere because of the frailty and vulnerability of people in care homes.’

On Thursday the Government announced it was launching two new ‘Lighthouse’ laboratories alongside the seven it already operates to manage overwhelming demand.

The two will be built in Newcastle and Bracknell, and come ‘on-line’ alongside Newport and Charnwood by the end of October, to increase capacity to deliver 500,000 tests per day.

Government capacity stands at around 236,000 tests a day. Yesterday it was revealed that nine of the ten coronavirus hotspots in England recorded no new cases for the last two days as labs struggled to catch up with capacity.

But a leading scientist has warned the Covid testing system is ‘dying on its a**e’ and accused labs of being poorly run with staff and equipment problems.

Genomics scientist and inventor Phil Robinson told The Times that the lighthouse labs were poorly managed, running out of staff and failed to set up automatic processes before a second wave of infections.

He told the paper: ‘Every part of the process was poor. The other ludicrous issue they have is they have 20 different types of tube coming into the lab. When you are running a high throughput lab it’s only sensible to have one. Why they haven’t standardised that I have no idea’.

As the wheels come off the testing system it has also been revealed that test and trace is taking up to two weeks to contact friends, relatives and colleagues of people who test positive for Covid-19.

Documents seen by The Guardian revealed the delays, and showed contact tracers at one firm hired by the Government to ensure close contacts of confirmed cases were tracked down and told to self-isolate have called contacts only to discover they were first identified as being at risk up to 14 days earlier.

One contact tracer said: ‘Some people are being told by test and trace that they need to self-isolate when their isolation period has been and gone. 

‘I rang someone a few days ago to tell them that they were a contact of a confirmed case and therefore needed to self-isolate. But halfway through the call I realised that her self-isolation period began on 31 August.’

NHS Providers, which represents NHS trust leaders, argued that the country was ‘a long way off where we need to be with testing’. 

Plans have also been revealed for a Lighthouse laboratory dealing with testing and a Covid-19 research hub, which could create 1,100 jobs in the North East of England.

The new facility would serve the region, as well as northern Cumbria and Yorkshire, and would be the latest expansion of the Government’s national Test and Trace programme.

Members of the public are pictured queuing outside a coronavirus testing centre in Edmonton, North London, as people across the country say they are struggling to get hold of tests

Members of the public are pictured queuing outside a coronavirus testing centre in Edmonton, North London, as people across the country say they are struggling to get hold of tests

Coronavirus testing centres have been pictured empty today despite hundreds of people saying they cannot book an appointment online. Meanwhile the company that runs them, Sodexo, is recruiting more staff and officials will say only that they are diverting capacity to badly-hit areas (Pictured: A test site in Leeds)

Coronavirus testing centres have been pictured empty today despite hundreds of people saying they cannot book an appointment online. Meanwhile the company that runs them, Sodexo, is recruiting more staff and officials will say only that they are diverting capacity to badly-hit areas (Pictured: A test site in Leeds) 

The Lighthouse lab will be based in Gateshead with a specialist innovation lab at the Helix site in Newcastle, focused on developing new approaches to coronavirus science.

The project will be a partnership between Newcastle City Council and the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, as well as public health teams, local universities and industry.

Deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said trust leaders were ‘increasingly concerned’ that testing shortages could put pressure on NHS services and winter preparations due to growing staff absences.

‘Trust leaders are concerned that they do not have the detail on why there are shortages, how widespread they are or how long they will last,’ she added.

Yesterday the UK recorded 3,395 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the seven-day rolling average of infections to up 33 per cent in a week.

Britain also recorded 21 more deaths from coronavirus, with 18 in England, three in Wales, and none in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

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