Hancock says UK hit 100,000 tests amid claims tally is artificially boosted | World news

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was accused of artificially inflating the number of coronavirus tests, as he hailed the rapid expansion that allowed him to reach a self-imposed 100,000-a-day target as a “national achievement”.

It emerged that a third of the 122,347 tests included in the final 24-hour period before the deadline were counted before they had been carried out.

Around 39,000 had been sent out to households and satellite testing locations, with no guarantee of the timescale for their completion, but were still included in the count.

The figure marked a significant rise on Thursday’s total of 81,611 tests, and comfortably exceeded the 100,000 daily target. The latest figure of 122,000 tests were carried out on 73,000 people, with the remainder being retests.

Hancock praised colleagues and private sector partners for the rapid increase in testing capability, which has seen mobile testing units and new labs created – and defended the target itself.

“Setting stretching, ambitious goals in a national crisis has a galvanising effect on everyone involved,” he said. “I knew that it was an audacious goal but we needed an audacious goal,” he said. “I can announce that we have met our goal.”

However, Hancock was criticised by his Labour shadow, Jon Ashworth. “Many would have expected the 100,000 promise to have been met by actually carrying out testing, not simply because 39,000 kits had been mailed out,” Ashworth said.

“This headline figure shouldn’t count tests that hadn’t been used or indeed might never be used. Ministers promised us transparency, the public and NHS deserve clarity.”

Initially only patients in hospital could get tests in the UK. Then testing was expanded to NHS staff and care home staff. Now up to 10 million essential workers and their families who are showing symptoms of coronavirus can apply for a test via a government website

The list of essential workers is the same as the one used to allow the children of key workers to carry on going to school during the lockdown. In addition to health and social care staff, the list includes teachers, judges, some lawyers, religious staff, and journalists providing public service broadcasting.

Also included are local civil servants, police, armed service personnel, fire and rescue service staff, immigration officers and prison and probation staff. Some private-sector staff also qualify including vets, those in food production, essential financial services and information technology, as well as those working in the oil, gas, electricity and water sectors.

Matthew Weaver

He also complained that the target was “never a strategy,” saying ministers should be using the lockdown period to “put the fundamentals of infectious disease control in place”.

Earlier on Friday, the Health Service Journal (HSJ) claimed that, until recently, tests were only recorded in the daily count once they had been sent to a laboratory for analysis. The government denied there had been a change.

An unnamed senior source told the HSJ that the change had been made because Hancock, the health and social care secretary, was “obsessed” with honouring his testing pledge.

Last week, an online portal was launched allowing drive-through tests and home testing kits to be booked by symptomatic key workers and, later, over-65s, those needing to work outside the home, care home staff and residents.

Hancock has come under intense pressure over the 100,000-a-day target since making it. At the time, the government was clear that the figure represented the number of people having a test. The current testing total used by ministers includes tens of thousands of retests.

Recently, Hancock stressed that his aim was to have in place by the end of April the capacity to undertake 100,000 daily tests.

According to the HSJ, Chris Wormald, the Department of Health’s permanent secretary, signed off what appeared to be a major and previously unannounced change to the way the headline daily number is calculated.

Challenged about the HSJ story, Hancock said: “It’s not something I recognise.”

The government’s testing tsar, John Newton, appearing alongside Hancock said: “There’s been no change to the way tests are counted.

“That’s the way they are counted, have always been counted, and that’s the way we were advised to count them by officials.”

However the numbers of home testing kits being mailed out was not included in figures before last week as the items were not available.

The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, said Hancock’s target “was always a hostage to fortune, and the truth is, he missed it”. He said it was disappointing the government had chosen to “massage the metrics” rather than admit failure as this would undermine public confidence.

Despite the row about how the tests are accounted for, Hancock said the significantly increased capacity would allow the government to track the progress of the disease more accurately, and to control its spread, once lockdown restrictions are eased.

Boris Johnson announced on Thursday that the government will set out next week a “road map” for reopening schools and businesses, once the government’s scientific advisers deem it safe to do so. This will include what he called a “menu of options”.

The prime minister said the public were likely to be encouraged to wear masks, as part of the plan for easing restrictions: but his official spokesman insisted on Friday that no formal decision had been made.

Johnson said at Thursday’s press conference: “I do think face masks will be useful, both for epidemiological reasons, and to give people the confidence that it is safe to go back to work.”

But his spokesman said no final decision had yet been taken. “Ministers are still considering how we move forward with face coverings, in terms of the precise advice,” he said.

“The advice we have received, based on the science, shows a weak but also positive effect in reducing transmission from … asymptomatic members of the public, where social distancing is not possible.”

The lockdown restrictions imposed on 23 March are set to be reviewed by ministers next Thursday.

Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014/15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

Most people who get Covid-19 will be infected by their friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, so they will be first on the list. It is not likely anyone will get infected by someone they do not know, passing on the street.

It is still assumed there has to be reasonable exposure – originally experts said people would need to be together for 15 minutes, less than 2 metres apart. So a contact tracer will want to know who the person testing positive met and talked to over the two or three days before they developed symptoms and went into isolation.

South Korea has large teams of contact tracers and notably chased down all the contacts of a religious group, many of whose members fell ill. That outbreak was efficiently stamped out by contact tracing and quarantine.

Singapore and Hong Kong have also espoused testing and contact tracing and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the “backbone of the response” in every country.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

Hancock announced that 27,510 people have now died from Covid-19: an increase of 739. The figures have risen significantly since the government began including deaths taking place in care homes, as well as those in hospitals.

The health secretary reiterated the government’s determination to recruit 18,000 people to help track the progress of the disease by mid-May, as part of what he called a “full-scale test, track and trace model”.

“If it needs to be bigger, we’ll scale it up as required,” he added. He also said the government will shortly release the app it has been trialling, which is aimed at identifying sufferers and warning those they have met.

“People will be able to know if they’ve been in close contact with someone who’s transmitting the disease, and take action if they need to,” he said.

The government has come under mounting pressure to explain why it didn’t build up the capacity to track the infection earlier – instead, halting the tracing of individual cases in March.

The Conservative MP Greg Clark, who chairs the science and technology committee, wrote a testy public letter to Public Health England on Friday to urge it to publish more evidence about why that decision was made, after it declined to do so.

“It is important that the bodies responsible for UK policy and practice are transparent about the basis of vital decisions,” he said. “It is disappointing that Public Health England has still not disclosed the assessment they made which led them to reject the South Korean approach to testing.

“So I ask again for PHE to publish the evidence which informed UK testing strategy, without further delay.”

The plea followed a hearing with PHE officials last month.

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