Matt Hancock pledges to 'make it easier' to access coronavirus tests

Matt Hancock admits NHS staff and social care workers HAVE struggled to access coronavirus checks as he says the government is working on pilot schemes to send swabs to people’s homes after MPs savage Health Secretary over ‘arbitrary’ 100,000 tests target

  • Matt Hancock appeared to admit tonight that some NHS and social care staff have struggled to access tests 
  • He said government is rolling out measures to ‘make it easier’ for people to get checked, including home tests
  • Health Secretary is also sticking to his 100,000 daily tests target despite mounting Tory fury over the number 
  • Local government minister Simon Clarke said government was moving from 26 current testing facilities to 50
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

Matt Hancock today appeared to admit that some frontline workers who have needed a coronavirus test have struggled to get one as he said the government is piloting a number of schemes to ‘make it easier’ for people to get checked. 

The UK currently has the capacity to carry out almost 40,000 tests a day but the latest numbers show that just under 20,000 tests are actually being carried out. 

Ministers have struggled to explain why there is such a large discrepancy between the two numbers but Mr Hancock told the daily Downing Street press conference the spare capacity means more tests can now be offered to more people. 

The Health Secretary conceded that drive-through testing centres – a key part of the government’s operation – would not be suitable for everyone and that the government is rolling out plans which will see swabs sent directly to the people who need them.

Meanwhile, the government’s testing tsar Professor John Newton said ministers are also implementing proposals to send swabs direct to care homes, with ‘mobile delivery’ methods for the checks also being looked at.

The comments came as Mr Hancock said he is sticking to his 100,000 daily coronavirus tests by the end of the month target as MPs said the number was ‘stupid’ and ‘arbitrary’.

The Health Secretary has just nine days left to reach his goal of six figure testing and this morning ministers announced the number of drive-through sites will be increased from 26 to 50.

Local Government Minister Simon Clarke appeared to concede that some staff have faced an uphill battle to get tested due to the location of the sites as he said adding more of them will ‘bring those centres closer to more people and make it more viable to go there’.

The move comes after numerous horror stories of self-isolating and potentially very unwell workers having to travel for multiple hours to get a test only for some of them to be told to come back another day. 

Photographs taken yesterday also showed near-empty test centres at the likes of Twickenham Stadium in West London, the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, Brighton and Hove Albion FC and Plymouth.  

There is rising Tory fury over Mr Hancock’s decision to set such a high testing target with many in Westminster deeply sceptical he will hit the goal. 

One senior Tory MP told MailOnline the target is ‘stupid’ and added: ‘Matt was extremely unwise to come up with such a high and round figure and to make a dogmatic commitment rather than an aspiration. 

‘He was under pressure at the time. If he wanted to reverse out of it he should have started reversing a week ago. It is pretty clear that he is not going to hit the target and he ought to be levelling with people.’   

A Number 10 insider echoed a similar sentiment, telling The Telegraph: ‘The problem is with this arbitrary target. There is a faint irrationality behind it, just because there was a clamour for mass testing. Hancock’s 100,000 target was a response to a criticism in the media and he decided to crank out tests regardless. He’s not had a good crisis.’

Matt Hancock, pictured at today’s Downing Street press conference, has come under fire for his 100,000 coronavirus tests target 

The test centre at Twickenham rugby stadium in West London yesterday appeared to be lying empty

The empty coronavirus testing centre for NHS staff and registered care workers at the Ricoh Arena yesterday

An opposition source told MailOnline they believed the target was an act of ‘desperation’ because of public pressure over testing levels. 

They also suggested that the target may have been set when the government believed antibody tests could play a role in hitting the figure. 

Antigen testing shows if someone currently has the disease while antibody shows if someone has had it and now has immunity. 

The UK was hopeful of obtaining working antibody tests earlier in the crisis but no country in the world has yet found one which is sufficiently accurate to be rolled out. 

That means that to hit the 100,000 figure all of the tests will have to be antigen which is a more laborious check to carry out. 

‘I think Hancock was told that he would have the antibody tests and then they completely disappeared,’ the source suggested. 

Mr Hancock told today’s press conference: ‘I think it is terrific that we have managed to increase capacity to over 39,000 tests a day which is higher than our planned trajectory.

‘Of course having excess capacity means that we can then expand who that capacity can be used by and also… increase the availability to more people and make it easier to access.

‘One example is that we have introduced home testing where a test can be sent out and taken and then returned so that the individual doesn’t need to move.

‘Obviously home testing will be particularly helpful to those living in care homes for whom a trip to a drive through testing centre might be a difficult thing to do.’

Drive-through tests are one of the main ways in which people are getting checked along with the testing of patients and staff inside NHS hospitals.   

Prof Newton said drive-through centres ‘are not necessarily ideal’ for some people to access as he revealed some alternatives are in the works. 

Speaking alongside Mr Hancock he said: ‘We are piloting a number of different ways of getting tests out to people both directly sending swabs to care homes, also as the Secretary of State mentions, testing at home.

‘Also mobile delivery so there are a number of ways we can get the swabs to the people rather than expecting the people to come to the swabs.’ 

Coronavirus tests have now been opened up to a large selection of workers ranging from health to social care to the police to the fire service. Transport workers and supermarket staff are also now being included. 

Mr Clarke said this morning that expanding the number of testing sites would help increase access to testing. 

‘We are absolutely determined across the whole of the UK to hit this target,’ he said. ‘As I say, we are going to move from 26 current testing facilities to 50. That will in turn obviously bring those centres closer to more people and make it more viable to go there. We’re increasing the groups of key workers who can go and be tested.’   

Asked about the gap between the number of tests carried out and the available capacity, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘Ministers have been very clear that any spare capacity should be used to test NHS and social care staff and their families.

‘As a result of the increased capacity which we have available, other critical care workers can now also get tests so that they can continue their vital work on the frontline.’  

The NHS Covid-19 testing centre in Plymouth, Devon, yesterday is empty when photographed yesterday

An empty drive-through Covid-19 test centre for NHS workers at Brighton and Hove Albion FC’s Amex Stadium yesterday

Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, which represents thousands of NHS lab staff, said: ‘There is just over a week left until this target, which appeared to be plucked out of the air, but lab staff are not being sent samples.

‘Part of the problem is that testing centres are in really remote areas, so people are not able to travel miles to get to them. We have consistently said all along that this target will not be reached. Staff at the large mass testing centres in Milton Keynes, Manchester and Glasgow are being sent home as there are no samples to process.’

Mr Johnson had earlier set a much more ambitious target of 250,000 tests-a-day during a briefing on Mach 19 before the lockdown as imposed, but he did not attach a date to when that would be achieved.

Britain, with 125,000 confirmed cases of the disease, is testing 5.54 people per 1,000 – 0.5 per cent of its population – according to the latest figures.

The UK sits well below nations with similar rates of infection, including Italy, Germany and Spain, which are all testing more than 20 people per thousand, according to statistics compiled by Oxford-led researchers.

Early testing for COVID-19 and isolating those who are positive as well as those they have come into contact with, is seen by the World Health Organization as crucial to bringing the pandemic under control.

Two flagship NHS testing sites stood empty as pictures taken yesterday showed few people were arriving to give samples.

Both Twickenham rugby stadium and Chessington World of Adventures in west London did not appear to have many patients arriving on Monday. 

A member of the military testing a person at a coronavirus test centre in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures on Saturday 

The coronavirus test centre set up in an IKEA car park was operating smoothly with more than 500 people booked to undergo a test.

A queue of 30 cars built up prior to the gates at the shuttered IKEA store in Wembley, North West London, being opened for NHS and other key workers to have a nasal and throat swab taken.

Army personnel in uniform could be seen assisting at one of the five mobile bays set up in the car part of the furniture super store.

Staff said approximately 30-40 appointments an hour had been pre-booked. Those who had supplied their car registration number did not have to queue and were waved inside by security guards in yellow high viz jackets.

Only NHS staff and key workers with an appointment were allowed inside the centre with members of the public turned away.

One NHS nurse leaving said she had been told to expect an email with the results after 48 hours.

She said: ‘It seems to be running smoothly. There was no problem in making an appointment and it all went well. I just have to wait now for the result, and hope that I am all clear.’

The IKEA test centre can handle up to 700 tests a day but staff said on average they had been seeing 500 people.

And testing of key workers for the coronavirus was operating well at the Chessington site in Surrey this morning.

Nurses, care home assistants and other critical workers were queuing into the main roads as they waited for the centre based at the Chessington World of Adventure amusement park to open.

Army medics joined NHS nurses to carry out the swab tests at four bays where the examinations are conducted on patients while they sit in their cars.

Some 500 tests are set to be carried out today, a staff member claimed.

Patients today described the testing process as efficient, with most being offered the examination within 24 hours of a request.

Care home assistant Elena, 32, told MailOnline: ‘It was very easy to get the test. I asked to come last night and I am here now.’

She added: ‘I work in a care home. There are ten or 12 people with Covid-19 out of a total of 67 residents, so I think I need to know if I ill so that I do not pass it on.’

Simon, 44, a support worker for disabled children, said: ‘My mum has been showing symptoms of the Coronavirus so I want to find out if I’ve got it or not. I told my boss about my mum on Sunday night and the called me up on Monday with an appointment.

‘I want to go back to work but I don’t want to give it to the kids so I want to make sure.’

Nurse Yvonne, 53, said: ‘I have been showing symptoms – I have a cough and a fever so I want to know if I am infected or not. I have been working on a ward where some of the patients have tested positive for Covid-19.

‘It was very easy to get this test. I told my line manager last night I was feeling unwell and I got this appointment for first thing today.’

A coronavirus test centre is seen at Twickenham stadium is pictured (above) on Monday 

On another day in coronavirus news:  

  • Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves accused the Government of ignoring offers from British manufacturers to fill the gap.
  • Dentists and anaesthetists became the latest groups to warn that they are working without adequate PPE.
  • Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals and NHS trusts in England, warned that the NHS’s supply of face masks could be jeopardised if the Government begins advising the public to wear them, saying ‘clear evidence’ would be needed before advice was changed.
  • The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Sage, which advises the Government, will reportedly consider the evidence at a meeting today.
  • Manjeet Riyat, the first Sikh to work as an A&E consultant in the UK, was named among the latest healthcare workers to die after contracting Covid-19.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Clarke said the UK was seeing ‘exponential growth’ in terms of testing capabilities.

‘We are doing our very best to make sure we hit that target,’ he added.

‘It’s the right target, it’s both what our science and the WHO’s (World Health Organisation’s) approach would suggest is the right thing to do.’

The government is working to ensure more key workers are eligible to have the tests so ‘every possible slot is filled’, he continued.

Mr Clarke said it was ‘highly unfair’ to Mr Hancock to suggest that the Government’s ambition to reach 100,000 tests a day was not ’empirically grounded’.

He added: ‘As I say, we are going to move from 26 current testing facilities to 50. That will in turn obviously bring those centres closer to more people and make it more viable to go there.

‘We’re increasing the groups of key workers who can go and be tested.’

It follows a major report which said testing and contact tracing in the wider community is the ‘most promising approach’ in the short term to helping lift the Covid-19 lockdown.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study said isolating people with coronavirus and tracing their contacts so they also isolate – an approach abandoned by the UK Government early on – is the key to controlling further outbreaks of coronavirus.

It comes as former health secretary Jeremy Hunt took to social media on Monday to say contact tracing ‘needs to be our next national mission’.

Mr Hunt, who is chairman of the Health Select Committee, added on Tuesday: ‘Mass contact tracing is the only internationally proven alternative to mass lockdown. We need to act fast.’

The OECD report said Covid-19 infections would ‘rebound rapidly’ if countries just moved to lift their lockdowns completely, and urged them to ramp up contact tracing.

The study argued that ‘strong and effective testing, tracking and tracing (TTT) is needed’ and ‘is the most promising approach in the short run to bringing – and keeping – the epidemic under control without resorting to widespread lockdowns of social and economic life’.

It added: ‘The TTT approach may be used to block the initial or recurrent spreads of a pathogen, aiming for a rapid extinction of local, well-defined outbreaks that collectively can control an epidemic.’

The Government has come under intense scrutiny over its testing and contact tracing policy after Public Health England advised ministers in early March that contact tracing should be stopped.

The UK approach has contrasted with other countries such as Singapore and South Korea, which have successfully kept up contact tracing to contain their outbreaks.

A coronavirus test centre is seen (above) at Twickenham stadium in west London on Monday. Few cars appeared to be arriving at the centre that day 

Germany, which has a far lower case and death rate than the UK, has also worked on contact tracing.

Mr Hancock told MPs on Friday that contact tracing was part of the strategy going forward and would be introduced again, admitting that ‘it wasn’t possible when we had a small number of tests’.

The Government is hoping that a contact tracing app being developed by NHSX will enable larger-scale contact tracing and will ‘assist individuals to do contact tracing themselves’, Mr Hancock said.

Mr Clarke said contact tracing was an issue for the Department of Health when asked about it on the Today programme.

It follows reports that around 5,000 environmental officers offered their help with contact tracing but did not get a response from ministers.

Public Health England has repeatedly suggested there was little point to continuing contact tracing once the virus started spreading on a large scale in the community.

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