Boris Johnson has been accused of “moving the goalposts” on his target to get most covid tests returned within 24 hours as latest figures showed he was well short of the goal.
New statistics published on Thursday showed that just 21% of tests were completed within the timeframe in “satellite” test centres used mainly by care workers, 60% in mobile test centres and 71% in regional test centres.
But government insiders suggested that a more valid interpretation of the target was to get the results received by the end of the next day following a test, partly because sending texts in the early hours of the morning may not be welcome for the public.
On the “next day” test, the figures look much better, with 73.9% of test results in “satellite” centres now getting results the day after the test was taken.
In the 70 regional test centres, 98% got the results the next day, and in 136 mobile testing centres the figure was 96.7%.
Fewer than 10% of home testing with postal kits, which are not included in Johnson’s target, have results returned within 24 hours.
But shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “We know for there to be an effective testing and tracing system to be in place that results need to be back quickly so it’s both disappointing and concerning that the government is moving the goalposts on its 24 hour turnaround for tests
“Ministers need to come clean about the problems meeting this target and what they are going to do to put it right. The government has been too slow on lockdown, too slow on PPE, too slow on social care – we cannot afford for it to be too slow on this as well.”
The only part of the entire testing structure that has very high turnaround times is the NHS, in so-called ‘Pillar 1’ tests in hospital and Public Health England laboratories.
Just over 90% of NHS labs return results within 24 hours as of June 30. The current average Covid-19 testing turnaround time in the NHS pathology
laboratories is 14 hours.
The prime minister set the goal last month, when he told MPs that 90% of tests were already being turned around within 48 hours but more had to be done to make NHS Test and Trace quicker.
Johnson promised “to get all tests turned around within 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that”.
Asked if the PM’s “24 hour” target still stood, his spokesperson said: “You have his words from the chamber.”
But the spokesperson added: “Getting tests back the next day is obviously important and we need to make sure we are achieving that in as many cases as we can.”
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt had criticised ministers’ failure to produce any figures on the proportion of tests being returned, and had warned it was undermining confidence in the test and trace programme.
The Commons health select committee chair had spoken of a “golden 48 hours” during which test results must be returned and their contacts then reached if NHS contact tracers are to have any chance of stopping a fresh outbreak of the disease.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has said a quick turnaround on tests was necessary to ensure the UK could clamp down on the virus as lockdown measures are eased further.
The new target had followed a more vague commitment from the PM in evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee in May.
He had said at the time that he was “forbidden from announcing any more targets and deadlines” after Matt Hancock’s own 100,000 tests per day target for the end of April.