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Government ‘doing its best’ to hit 100,000-a-day Covid-19 testing target

By Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor

The Government is doing its “very best” to hit the 100,000-a-day coronavirus testing target set by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, a minister has said.

Local government minister Simon Clarke admitted reaching the target – set for the end of this month – was a huge challenge but suggested the Government was still on track.

A gulf has opened up between the number of frontline workers being tested to see whether they have Covid-19 and testing capacity within the system.

Latest official figures show just 19,316 tests were carried out in the 24 hours to 9am on Monday, while the most recent total testing capacity is 36,000.

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.

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.