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Health secretary Matt Hancock has said he is “setting the goal” for 100,000 tests a day for coronavirus by the end of April.
Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street amid rising criticism the UK has been slow to ramp up its testing regime, the minister tried to allay fears by outlining a “five pillar” plan on testing.
The new target is a significant step-up from the current goal of 25,000. According to the latest figures, just 10,215 people were tested over the last day.
Hancock, who himself has recovered from the virus, admitted there would be “bumps in the road” as the UK lacked the large diagnostics industry of countries like Germany and would be starting from a “lower base”.
But he pledged Public Health England and the private sector would “unite” to build lab capacity over the next four weeks and testing would be handed to patients and NHS staff first.
The government’s “five-pillar” testing strategy is:
Swab testing in Public Health England and NHS labs
Working with “commercial partners”, such as universities and private businesses, to build more testing capacity
New antibody blood tests which show whether people have had Covid-19
Surveillance to determine the rate of infection and how it is spreading across the country
Build an “at-scale” diagnostics industry to reach 100,000 tests by end of April.
He said he thought any health secretary would have have set the same priorities.
“I understand why NHS staff want tests, so they can get back to the front line, of course I do,” he said.
“But I took the decision that the first priority has to be the patients for whom the results of a test could be the difference in treatment that is the difference between life and death.
“I believe anybody in my shoes would have taken the same decision.”
Asked about Boris Johnson’s previous ambition for the UK to operate 250,000 tests a day, Hancock said he stood by the number set out by the prime minister.
“The commitment that I’m making today is that our goal is 100,000 by the end of the month,” he said.
“I want to bring this whole national effort to bear on that and then we will keep going once we have reached that 100,000, and so, absolutely, I stand by the commitment that the prime minister made of 250,000.”
The minister also said that although a country-wide shortage of swabs had been “resolved” there was a “global challenge” around getting enough chemicals.
He added there was a “challenge” in ensuring the public could have “confidence” in the tests being used on NHS staff.
A number of testing methods being analysed had failed to positively diagnose a coronavirus patient, he said.
It comes after health chiefs confirmed that a further 569 people had died in the UK after being diagnosed with the virus, bring the country’s death toll to 2,921.
Hancock said: “In one case, a test that I’m being urged to buy missed three out of four positive cases for coronavirus.
“That means that, [for] three-quarters of cases, that test would have given the false comfort of sending someone with coronavirus back on the wards.
“Approving tests that don’t work is dangerous and I will not do it.”