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Covid-19: New target of 100,000 tests per day set by Health Secretary

Pippa Fowles/Crown Copyright/10 Downing Street/PA Wire

By Jane Kirby and Harriet Line, PA

The UK will carry out 100,000 Covid-19 tests per day by the end of April, Matt Hancock has said, as he set a new target as part of the Government’s testing strategy.

After several days of intense scrutiny over failures in testing, the Health Secretary said he was setting out a new “five-pillar” strategy on the issue.

He said the UK would hit 100,000 tests per day, which can be made up of antigen tests that tell people whether they currently have Covid-19, as well as antibody tests to see whether people have previously had the infection.

Mr Hancock, who has recovered from Covid-19 and came out of self-isolation on Thursday, said he came back “redoubled in my determination to fight this virus with everything I’ve got.”

“And we will strain every sinew to defeat it once and for all.”

“And I will stop at nothing to make sure that frontline staff have the right equipment so that they are safe and can have the confidence they need to do their jobs.”

Mr Hancock said the UK lacked a large diagnostics industry so was having to build from a “lower base” than the likes of Germany, which is testing at greater levels for coronavirus.

He said a country-wide shortage of swabs had been “resolved” but that there remained a “global challenge” around sourcing the reagent chemicals needed for the tests.

Mr Hancock said NHS staff would be able to get tested for Covid-19 “absolutely before the end of the month.”

He added: “With 5,000 tested since (staff testing) started at the weekend we’ve clearly made significant progress.”

Mr Hancock said his five-part strategy was:
– Swab testing in Public Health England (PHE) and NHS labs
– Using commercial partners, including universities and private businesses, to establish more swab testing
– Introducing antibody blood tests to determine 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 the end of April.

Mr Hancock said the Government was working with nine potential providers on a new antibody test – which many argue is the key to releasing the lockdown – but that this would only be rolled out when clinicians were confident it was a valid test.

He said: “No test is better than a bad test.”

The Cabinet minister defended his decision to prioritise testing of patients over NHS staff and said he thought any health secretary would have done the same.

Mr Hancock said: “I understand why NHS staff want tests, so they can get back to the front line, of course I do.”

“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.”

The Health Secretary also announced that more than £13 billion of historic NHS debt would be written off to place trusts in a “stronger position” to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

Figures showed that 5.7% of doctors were currently absent due to Covid-19, he added.

Earlier in the week, the Royal College of Physicians said around one in four were absent.

It comes as Downing Street said on Thursday that Boris Johnson was still showing coronavirus symptoms.

The Prime Minister’s seven days of self-isolation end on Friday but it is unclear whether he plans to leave the Downing Street flat where he has been staying.

Latest data shows 2,921 people were confirmed to have died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Wednesday.

The youngest person who died without underlying health conditions was aged 25.

The total is up by 569 from 2,352 the day before and is the biggest day-on-day increase so far, just above the 563 reported the day before.

Mr Hancock confirmed that the Government was considering issuing people with immunity certificates once the antibody tests were ready for roll-out.

“We are looking at an immunity certificate – how people who have had the disease, have got the antibodies and therefore have the immunity, can show that and so get back, as much as possible, to normal life,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said this had been discussed in other countries and the UK was watching what happened closely.

Number 10 also said Mr Johnson would look to find a way to participate in the “clap for our carers” celebration on Thursday evening despite remaining in self-isolation.

Earlier on Thursday, Professor Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of PHE, admitted “everybody involved is frustrated” by the low number of tests being carried out.

He pointed to ongoing capacity issues and said PHE’s focus had been on NHS testing laboratories, while other work was now being led by the Office for Life Sciences to collaborate with universities and non-PHE labs.

Prof Cosford said five drive-through NHS staff-testing hubs were up and running, with “another four to come on stream this week”.

Meanwhile, comedian Eddie Large, best known for being half of British comedy duo ‘Little And Large’, has died after contracting coronavirus in hospital.

The 78-year-old, whose real name was Edward McGinnis, had been suffering with heart problems, his son Ryan said in a Facebook post.

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