Drive-through coronavirus testing sites across the UK were pictured almost empty today as Matt Hancock faced a backlash because he is set to miss his target of conducting 100,000 checks a day by the end of April.
The Health Secretary announced on April 2 that the government would achieve six-figure daily testing by close of play today but the latest numbers show 52,429 tests were carried out in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday.
Of that number, some 28,539 were done at dozens of drive-through centres across the nation while 23,648 were carried out by the NHS and Public Health England.
But there are growing questions about the accessibility of testing sites as facilities in Bradford, Nottingham, Ipswich, Ebbsfleet, Boston and elsewhere were today photographed with only a trickle of motorists waiting to get checked.
Daily available capacity is now just shy of 80,000 but even if ministers can boost that number to 100,000 before tomorrow it seems incredibly unlikely that they will be able to almost double the number of tests being administered.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland conceded this morning the aim was ‘probably’ going to be missed as he blamed the fact the government started from a ‘low base’ in terms of testing capacity.
But Downing Street this afternoon insisted the Health Secretary and his staff are still trying to hit the target as time runs out.
The likely failure to hit the goal has prompted Tory fury as Mr Hancock was accused by MPs of ‘over-promising’ and ‘under-delivering’ amid fears it will damage public confidence in the government.
Meanwhile, experts slammed the target as a ‘red herring’ that has hampered the response to the outbreak.
NHS Providers, which represents health service trusts, has launched a scathing attack on Mr Hancock’s handling of the situation, saying the push to hit the number has been a ‘distraction’ and led to chaotic expansion of the regime.
A coronavirus drive-through testing centre in Nottingham is pictured empty this morning
The drive-through testing centre at Haydock Park Racecourse in Merseyside was also seen almost empty today
Staff wait for people to arrive at an empty drive-through regional coronavirus testing centre which opened yesterday at Bradford University
A testing centre in Ipswich, Suffolk is pictured mid-morning today with only a trickle of cars
A mobile coronavirus centre provided by The Royal Anglian regiment is pictured in Boston today
Matt Hancock (pictured in Downing Street yesterday) faces humiliatingly missing his coronavirus testing target today – as experts brand it a ‘red herring’ that has hampered the response
Why did Matt Hancock set the 100,000 tests target and why is the government set to miss it?
Matt Hancock announced on April 2 that he wanted 100,000 daily coronavirus tests to be carried out by the end of the month.
Today is the deadline for hitting the goal but ministers have conceded they are unlikely to make it.
Why did the Health Secretary set the target?
Critics have accused Mr Hancock of coming up with the number because of growing public pressure over the UK’s underwhelming testing operation. Those accusations increased after Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty revealed the government’s scientific experts had not recommended the figure but had just urged for numbers to increase. Mr Hancock has previously said one of the aims of the target was to ‘galvanise’ industry and the public sector to rise to the challenge and boost capacity. On that measure he has succeeded with capacity now at more than 70,000. But he is yet to explain why specifically he chose 100,000.
Why is the government set to fall short of the target?
The main reason appears to have been difficulty in actually accessing the checks. Throughout the crisis the number of tests carried out has run at approximately half of the available capacity. There have been numerous horror stories of self-isolating NHS staff facing four or five hour journeys to get tested at a drive-through site only to be told to come back another day. Staff without their own transport have also struggled to get checked with home tests only just becoming available. Another reason appears to be that the government may have overestimated demand within the health service for tests as ministers have moved on a number of occasions to expand the eligibility for checks so that more capacity is taken advantage of. Meanwhile, when the target was announced Mr Hancock suggested testing would be split between antigen and antibody but the government is yet to find a working, mass-produced antibody test making ministers entirely reliant on more laborious antigen tests.
Where are tests being carried out?
The government’s testing operation is split into different pillars. One pillar relates to testing in hospitals – this applies to both patients and now to asymptomatic staff. Another is drive-through testing with 42 sites open across the country, rising to 48 by the end of the week. Then there are mobile testing facilities being run by the army. There are 17 of those units currently operational, rising to 70 by the end of this week. Then there is home testing. When it launched last week there were only 5,000 home check kits available a day but it is hoped that will increase to 25,000 by the weekend.
Why can’t NHS staff just get tested at hospitals?
The government only extended the testing eligibility to asymptomatic NHS staff this week. Up to that point frontline workers needed to have symptoms to get checked but anyone with symptoms was told to self-isolate at home. That means they have had to use drive-through sites.
How successful have the different testing pillars actually been?
The latest official statistics showed that in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday there were 52,429 tests carried out.
Some 23,648 were carried out in NHS settings and by Public Health England. Some 28,539 were at drive-through sites. Total available capacity was 77,365.
What is the political reaction to Mr Hancock missing the target?
Some Tory MPs believe Mr Hancock was ‘stupid’ to set such a high target and that he should have reversed away from it weeks ago. One senior Conservative figure said the Health Secretary was ‘extremely unwise’ to bet so heavily on hitting the number and that he would have to ‘carry the can’ for the failure. Number 10 insiders said the problem with the target was that it was ‘arbitrary’. The government will be concerned that failing to hit the target could damage public confidence in the coronavirus response.
In a report, it said the English health and care system ‘started from a poor position’ as Covid-19 tightened its grip on Europe, and consistently ‘struggled’ to demonstrate a ‘clear, effective and well communicated strategy’, with a lack of clarity on who would be tested, when, how, and with what frequency.
Chris Hopson, NHS Providers chief executive, said members are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of clarity on how the testing regime will be developed for the next phase.
The Government has insisted lockdown measures cannot be eased unless its five criteria, including manageable infection rates and testing capacity, are met.
Mr Hopson said: ‘Testing is one area where, despite all the work delivered by trusts and the NHS, the health and care system as a whole has struggled to develop an effective, coordinated approach.
‘As we consider the route out of lockdown, what trust leaders need now is clarity on the testing regime from here on.
‘Setting a target for a number of tests for April 30 may have had a galvanising effect. But what matters most is an updated strategy to take us through the exit from lockdown.’
Testing numbers were languishing at around 10,000 a day when Mr Hancock set the goal.
Mr Buckland told BBC Breakfast today: ‘Even if it isn’t met, we’re well on our way to ramping this up and 100,000 is an important milestone, but frankly we need more.
‘Yes, 52,000 isn’t 100,000, I know that … but we are straining every sinew to get there.
‘If he hadn’t set a target he would have been criticised for being unambitious. I think now is the time in respect of this to be bold … being brave is something we should acknowledge even if the target isn’t met today.’
Professor John Newton, the Government’s testing supremo, said yesterday that he remained confident of reaching the 100,000 landmark by the end of April.
Number 10 appeared to slap down Mr Buckland as the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said at lunchtime the Government is still ‘working hard’ to hit the target.
The PM’s Official Spokesman said that as of April 28, testing capacity had been increased to 77,365.
He said: ‘The target is for 100,000 tests today and the Health Secretary and all of his team are working hard to hit it.’
He added: ‘You can chart the progress that we’ve made towards hitting that target and that we are working hard today to ensure that people who need tests get them.’
The PM’s spokesman said 42 drive-through test sites are now open and 17 mobile sites are operational.
The final testing figure for today will not be known until Saturday due to the amount of time it takes to turn the numbers around.
The decision by Mr Hancock to announce, and then stick to, the figure has prompted fury among some Conservative MPs who have claimed the Health Secretary has ‘damaged’ his reputation and potentially that of the government.
One senior Tory told MailOnline: ‘Poor old Matt has been damaged by this. This will have damaged confidence in him because he looked like someone new to the job, under pressure and reacting with something that bought him time – but it was always doomed to failure.
‘It was silly. It has been obvious for 10 days he would not hit it.’
Another Tory MP said: ‘The problem has been throughout that we have over-promised and under-delivered and we should have done it the other way around.
‘They seemingly wanted an announcement every day but that was not the right way to do things.
‘The big mistake has been over promising. They should stop trying to spin people.’
Meanwhile, Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, has called for Mr Hancock to quit if he fails to hit the target.
She tweeted: ‘As this is literally a matter of life and death, of course he should resign if the target is not met.’
The NHS Providers report described how members felt ‘on the end of a series of frequent tactical announcements’, with ‘no visibility on any long-term strategy’.
It said: ‘They are being expected, at the drop of a hat, to accommodate these changes with no advance notice or planning, despite the fact that many of the changes have significant operational impact.’
The report added: ‘The recent public focus on whether 100,000 tests will be performed on April 30 is a red herring.’
NHS Providers described the target as ‘arbitrary’ and said it risked preventing the development of a ‘proper, next stage testing strategy’, adding: ‘It may be testing for testing’s sake.’
The report calls on the Government to update its existing testing plan – published before the perceived first peak of the virus – by addressing several matters, including how it intends to improve access for key worker testing, how it expects to prioritise who is swabbed, and how it plans to track and trace any new outbreak once lockdown is lifted.
It said it would be for any subsequent public inquiry to determine why these problems have occurred and whether the response was adequate.
A Department of Health spokesman said testing was ‘absolutely critical’ and capacity at NHS and Public Health England laboratories had more than doubled within weeks.
He added: ‘Our aim as we tackle this virus is to make it easy, fast and simple for any essential worker who needs a test to get a test.
‘In addition to setting up a nationwide network of drive in testing sites, we have introduced home testing kit delivery, deployed mobile testing units operated by the Armed Forces, and built three new ‘mega labs’ to analyse test samples.’
When Mr Hancock announced the target on April 2 he said he was ‘determined we’ll get there’.
At the time it was thought that the 100,000 figure would be a mix of antigen tests which show if someone currently has symptoms and antibody tests which show if someone has had it and may now have immunity.
However, government hopes of finding a working antibody test which can be mass-produced have fallen flat which means ministers have been entirely reliant on more laborious antigen testing to get to the goal.
Throughout April the Health Secretary said he was sticking to the target and repeatedly said he believed it would be met.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland conceded this morning that the aim was ‘probably’ going to be missed
He did soften his stance as the month progressed as he described 100,000 daily tests as an ‘ambitious goal’ and insisted one of the reasons he set the target was to ‘galvanise’ the public and private sectors to ramp up capacity.
On Wednesday this week Mr Hancock said it was a ‘big, big ask’ but that the government was still ‘on track’ as he accepted a £100 charity wager that he would hit the target.
But he also insisted ‘there’s no guarantees in this life’ as he appeared to lay the groundwork for falling short.
As well as the antibody issue, there appear to have been a number of other reasons why the government has struggled to hit the target, with difficulty in accessing the checks at the top of the list.
There have been numerous horror stories of self-isolating NHS staff facing four or five hour journeys to get tested at a drive-through site only to be told to come back another day.
Staff without their own transport have also struggled to get checked, with home tests only just becoming available.
Another reason appears to be that the government may have overestimated demand within the health service for tests as ministers have moved on a number of occasions to expand the eligibility for checks so that more capacity is taken advantage of.
Mr Hancock is under growing pressure over his decision to pick 100,000 as his target after the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said it had not been signed off by the government’s scientific experts.