As long ago as 11 March, the NHS set out its plans to ramp testing up to 10,000 a day, and last week Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that this would be increased to 25,000. In an upbeat press conference on Thursday, the prime minister suggested the number could eventually reach 250,000 as new tests came on stream.
But figures released today showed that 5,605 tests were conducted on Monday, bringing the tally between 16 and 23 March to 39,840, almost doubling the total since the beginning of the outbreak to 83,945.
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The figures were published as it emerged that Mr Johnson wrote to UK research institutes on Sunday asking them to lend the NHS the expensive machines needed to carry out tests for Covid-19, and warning that there were none available for the government to buy.
Health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that officials were negotiating the purchase of “millions” more kits, with the aim of ramping up the rate of testing.
But Mr Hunt, now chair of the Commons Health Committee, warned that the public would lose confidence unless the government spelt out how quickly it could scale up testing.
He called for a move to widespread testing in the community of the kind seen in the successful suppression strategies in countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Mr Hunt told MPs: “The concern is that we appear to be testing on a daily basis virtually no more people than over a week ago, when the commitment was to increase the daily amount of tests form 5,000 to 25,000.”
He asked the health secretary to “give us an estimated date when we will get back to routine Covid-19 testing in the community of all suspected cases”.
Mr Hunt said: “Even if that is three to four weeks away, a date means that there is a plan and without a date, people won’t be confident that there is a plan.”
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Mr Hancock refused to give a target date for wider tests, but said the Department of Health was in the process of purchasing “millions” of tests for use “as quickly as possible”.
Staff at hospitals and care homes for the elderly across the country have expressed rising frustration about a lack of tests, which leave them unable to be sure whether to remain at work or stay home to avoid infecting colleagues. An online petition calling for the priority testing of frontline NHS staff has gathered 1.2m signatures.
The World Health Organisation has called on governments around the globe to “test, test, test” as widely as possible so infected people can be isolated and their contacts traced.
The Politico website reported that the email sent to research institutes around the country on Sunday included a personal plea from prime minister Boris Johnson stating that No 10 was making an “urgent appeal” for machines to carry out coronavirus tests “in the national interest”.
An unnamed source within the research sector told Politico: “It’s great that they are ramping up testing, but it should have been done weeks ago. This is costing lives every day.”
But a government source said the message was the latest in a number of requests for help to the private sector and academia stretching back several weeks.
In the email, a senior Downing Street aide said: “We will meet all expenses and assume all liabilities and requirements associated with the use of these machines for this purpose. We undertake to return or replace the equipment when the emergency is over. We would very much like to collect any machines you have tomorrow (Mon 23) or Tuesday.”
An attached letter from Mr Johnson said that “there are no machines available to buy,” and that the “urgent appeal” is therefore “in the national interest.”
He added: “If you have any staff who are experienced in using the machines … that would also be very helpful.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth raised concerns over the PM’s apparent suggestion that there were “no machines available”.
Mr Ashworth told the House of Commons: “Many NHS staff will be asking why didn’t we procure machines and kits sooner?”
Mr Hancock refused to comment on the email, but told MPs he “did not recognise” claims that the government was finding it impossible to buy testing machines.
“It is true, absolutely, that we are bringing testing machines together to provide a more efficient testing system,” he told the House of Commons.
“I am very grateful to the universities who have these testing machines and are putting them into the system. This is a national effort and they are playing their part, but we are also buying machines where we can.”
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said: “It is no secret that we are rapidly scaling up our efforts to boost testing capacity to protect the vulnerable, support our NHS and save lives.
“Together with Public Health England and the NHS, we are exploring how we can work across industry and academic sectors to establish viable options which will significant ramp up the number of tests we can carry out.”