POLITICS
06/05/2020 12:26 BST | Updated 06/05/2020 16:22 BST

Boris Johnson Targets 200,000 Coronavirus Tests Per Day By End Of May

Prime minister admits the UK abandoned contact tracing on March 12 as it lacked capacity. It is now being reintroduced.

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Boris Johnson has set the government a new target for 200,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of May.

Johnson set the new “ambition” on his return to the Commons for prime minister’s questions after recovering from Covid-19.

It was not initially clear whether the prime minister wanted to carry out 200,000 tests a day by June, but Downing Street later confirmed that the target was simply about building capacity to those levels.

It comes after the government boosted capacity to 100,000 a day by the end of April.

But ministers faced accusations of massaging the figures to meet the target set by Matt Hancock by counting tests delivered to people’s homes that had not yet been returned to labs with a sample.

Testing is seen as crucial to ending the lockdown and avoiding a second peak as it is crucial in tracking and containing further outbreaks of the virus.

The prime minister said today: “The ambition clearly is to get up to 200,000 a day by the end of this month and then to go even higher.”

Johnson has previously said he would like the UK to carry out 250,000 tests a day.

The new target comes after chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the UK should have ramped up testing capacity sooner in the outbreak.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries also said the UK may have been able to continue contact tracing, which it abandoned on March 12 and is only now reintroducing, if testing capacity had been available.

That could have allowed the UK to pursue a similar test, track and trace approach to those seen in countries where there have been far fewer deaths.

Germany, which has had just under 7,000 coronavirus deaths, and South Korea, which has had just 255, have been praised for testing, tracking and tracing from early stages in the outbreak.

But the UK, which has the highest death rate in Europe with 32,375 confirmed Covid-19 fatalities, has meanwhile been criticised for abandoning community testing on March 12.

Hancock now aims to introduce a test, track and trace approach by the end of May, with the aid of a new contact tracing phone app and 18,000 new staff.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer highlighted the death rate at PMQs.

“It’s now the highest number in Europe. It’s the second highest in the world. That’s not success or apparent success.

“So can the prime minister tell us how on earth did it come to this?”

Johnson replied: “Every death is a tragedy and he’s right to draw attention to the appalling statistics, not just in this country but across the world.”

The PM added: “At this stage I don’t think international comparisons and the data is yet there to draw all the conclusions that we want.”

Johnson however admitted the government lacked the capacity to continue contact tracing in March after Starmer highlighted Harries’ comments,

The Labour leader said: “We were told at the time that this was because it was quote ‘not an appropriate mechanism’ but yesterday the deputy chief medical officer (Harries) said it was to do with testing capacity. So can the prime minister just clarify the position for us?”

Johnson replied: “The difficulty in mid-March was that the tracing capacity that we had, that had been useful as he rightly says in the containment phase of the epidemic, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant since the transmission from individuals within the UK meant that it exceeded our capacity then.

“Now the value of the testing, tracking and tracing operation that we’re setting up now is that as we come out of the epidemic and as we get the new cases down, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country and thereby to drive down the epidemic.”

Amid speculation that the new target was a ‘misspeak’ by the PM, Starmer’s spokesman stressed he should clarify if it was not an official commitment.

“The prime minister has now made a new commitment in the House of Commons that the target is now 200,000 a day. We will hold him to that commitment. We would also ask the government does set out when it intends to hit the prime minister’s previous commitment of 250,000 a day.

“If that commitment is not correct, then obviously the prime minister should come back to the House of Commons and clarify.”

Starmer’s office also picked up on Johnson’s line that either he or ‘the government’ would make a statement to the Commons on Monday.

“The prime minister should be making a statement to the Commons. This is his plan. It is his proposals, and it should be him in the House on Monday answering questions from MPs about what is in it. We will be expecting him in the chamber on Monday.”