Less than half UK’s Covid-19 testing capacity being used, figures show | World news

No 10 has said the country now has the capacity to test more than 35,000 hospital patients, NHS staff and care workers a day for coronavirus but questions are mounting about why less than half of those tests are currently being carried out.

While the government is aiming for 100,000 tests a day, just 15,994 tests were carried out in the 24 hours before 9am on Wednesday.

This is despite capacity at NHS and Public Health England laboratories of 20,771 tests and 14,300 at 26 privately operated drive-through sites across the country.

No 10 suggested the NHS needed to refer more staff for testing but also said it was looking at widening the eligibility for testing.

“We are very clear that we want the NHS to be making use of any additional capacity which exists,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

“We have more to do in relation to testing. We need to reach 100,000 tests by the end of the month and that is what we are working hard on.

“Testing is going to be hugely important to finding the key to unlocking the way out of this pandemic and we need to keep working hard at it.”

The government had targeted a goal of ramping up testing at NHS and PHE laboratories to 25,000 a day by the middle of April. It appears now to have met that capacity with the help of private drive-through sites, despite Matt Hancock, the health secretary, denying that target at Wednesday’s press conference.

However, it is still a long way from actually completing the number of tests that it has the capacity to process.

Experts have warned that mass testing and contact tracing is critical for being able to ease the UK’s lockdown gradually with no big resurgences of coronavirus.

Prof Neil Ferguson, whose team’s modelling was central to the government bringing in the lockdown, said on Thursday there now needed to be a “single-minded emphasis on scaling up testing and contact tracing”.

He argued that a huge infrastructure of testing and contact tracing would need to be in place in order for the lockdown to be lifted without further peaks, pointing to the model of South Korea, which has been suppressing new outbreaks.

“Without that, our estimates show we have relatively little leeway. If we relax measures too much then we will see a resurgence in transmission,” he said.

He said it was necessary to ease restrictions at the right time but added: “We will have to retain some level of social distancing indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.”

A new report from the Policy Exchange thinktank has called for a cross-government and multi-agency 24-hour national testing and tracing command centre to overcome the crisis.

The report, co-authored by Richard Walton, the former head of counterterrorism command at the Metropolitan police, said a new centre to introduce digital contact tracing at scale should be led by a single individual experienced in command, control, co-ordination and communication.

Such a body would include analysts and intelligence professionals from public health, the NHS, local government, police, military, intelligence agencies, private sector and other government departments, modelled on similar examples in Taiwan and Singapore and those within UK counterterrorism.

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