Boris Johnson has claimed testing and tracing has “very little or nothing to do with the spread and transmission” of coronavirus, after being confronted over the failures of the current system.
The prime minister’s claim comes despite the government’s promise that NHS Test and Trace would “help identify, contain and control coronavirus, reduce the spread of the virus and save lives” when it launched in May.
The service is designed to catch people infected with Covid-19 through testing, then isolate their recent close contacts and asking them to self isolate in an attempt to stop the virus spreading further than that circle.
It is an approach that has been praised in countries like South Korea, where the virus has been kept largely under control compared to the UK.
Johnson was attempting to defend NHS Test and Trace amid a string of embarrassing failures, which critics say have contributed to the surge in infections that prompted new restrictions announced on Wednesday.
During a debate in the Commons on Tuesday, the PM claimed: “Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread and transmission of the disease.
“The spread and the transmission of the disease is caused by contact between human beings and all the things that we’re trying to minimise.”
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said Johnson was talking “nonsense”, stressing: “When testing breaks down, tracing breaks down, you can’t track the virus and you lose control.”
In May, health secretary Matt Hancock said NHS Test and Trace would be “vital to stopping the spread of the virus” and would “help us keep this virus under control while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally”.
Following the reopening of schools and the government’s now-reversed advice for people to go back to the office, the UK’s testing system has been struggling to cope.
NHS Test and Trace’s boss Baroness Dido Harding last week revealed up to 750,000 requests for Covid-19 tests were going unanswered every day, while the government is falling well short of its months-old target to turn around 80% of test results within 24 hours.
Johnson was confronted by Labour MP Stephanie Peacock, who said one of her constituents was told to travel 300 miles to get a test for her son, who was sent home from school with potential symptoms.
Peacock said that despite raising the case with Matt Hancock last week, the constituents’ son still had not had a test, or any contact from the authorities.
“Sadly the reason we are facing greater restrictions is because the government has failed to establish an effective testing system,” she said.
“Prime minister, when will you fix the testing system?”
Johnson replied: “I increasingly think it’s disgraceful that the Labour opposition continue to blame NHS Test and Trace for the resurgence of the disease.
“There is a complete hiatus in their logic.
“They are talking absolute nonsense.
“Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread and transmission of the disease.
“The spread and the transmission of the disease is caused by contact between human beings and all the things that we’re trying to minimise.
“Of course NHS Test and Trace is vital but the way to fix the problem now is for the whole country to follow this package of guidance, drive the R (virus reproduction rate) down and allow both education and the economy to continue.
“But there is a complete flaw in their logic.”
Johnson meanwhile refused to say when the government will meet its target of getting 80% of test results turned around within 24 hours.
Answering senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who asked about timescales, the PM replied: “In spite of the massive increase in testing that we’ve seen - 10% increase in capacity just in the last 10 days or so - we are seeing at the moment 64% of people getting their results in 24 hours.
“I do want to get that up as fast as possible to 80%.
“We will double our testing capacity by the end of October to 500,000 tests a day and we are already testing more people than any other country in Europe.”