Matt Hancock has denied the Government failed to plan for a surge in demand for coronavirus tests, and claimed the spike of up to four times greater than Britain’s capacity was ‘very, very hard to predict’.
Batting off criticism, the Health Secretary blamed the public for applying for tests when they didn’t have symptoms and accused Britons in self-isolation of trying to get tests so that they could get out of quarantine and back to reality.
Defending his handling of the testing fiasco, he claimed: ‘Of course we knew that demand was going to go up, the challenge has been that it has gone up incredibly high including among the people who do not have symptoms, who are not eligible for tests.
‘We model the amount of demand among people who are eligible. The fact that there’s been such a spike from those for whom a test won’t help… that is very, very hard to predict that there’d be this behavioural change.’
Testing tsar Baroness Harding faced a grilling from MPs yesterday as she argued that ‘no one saw’ the surge in demand, despite repeated warnings that Britons returning to schools and offices would heap huge pressure on the system.
It comes as test and trace was today branded ‘barely functional’, with staff taking as long as 14 days to contact the friends, relatives and colleagues of those who test positive for coronavirus.
And concerns were today also raised about the Government’s seven ‘Lighthouse Labs’ and their ability to process results, due to shortages of staff and equipment.
Genomics scientist and inventor Phil Robinson told The Times that the Lighthouse Labs were poorly managed, running out of staff and failed to set up automatic processes before a second wave of infections.
Matt Hancock has admitted he did plan for a spike in demand, but claimed the enormous surge they have seen was ‘very, very hard to predict’
Testing tsar Baroness Harding faced a grilling from MPs yesterday as the wheels began to come off the UK’s ‘world-leading’ testing system
When should I get a coronavirus test?
Who should get tested for coronavirus?
The NHS says that anyone who develops symptoms of coronavirus should get a test. These are:
- a high temperature
- New continuous cough
- Loss of sense of taste and smell
They add that a select group of other people will also be able to access testing. These are people who:
- Live in England and have been told to get a test before entering hospital for surgery
- Asked to by their local council
- Are taking part in a government pilot project
Who should not get a coronavirus test?
Matt Hancock has claimed up to one-in-four tests are being given out to people who are not eligible for them.
He said he has heard stories of whole schools applying for them after one case of coronavirus was recorded there, and of people getting them because they are going on holiday.
This is not what the testing system has been designed for, he said. and it means that people who need a test cannot get one.
Seeking to blame the public for the testing crisis, Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that demand for tests has ‘gone through the roof’.
‘The reason I defend so fiercely the people who are building our testing capability is that they have been, they were given, a trajectory to hit that was based on the science and they are on track to deliver that growth.
‘Now of course I want it to go as fast as possible and we have put huge resources into this and there’s new technologies some of which are in the news today coming onboard.
‘But, you know, driving that as fast as possible has been the goal and then we’ve had this massive increase in demand from people who aren’t eligible.
‘Over summer we built the capacity, we automated parts of the process, putting in place new machines, opening new labs, we’ve been building this capacity over the summer and working incredibly hard all the way through.’
He added: ‘At the start of last week we saw demand was shooting up. We could have reduced the over 100,000 tests a day that are sent to social care – and that would have taken a load of noise out of the system.
‘But I refused to do that and the Prime Minister actively backed this decision because that’s where tests are needed more than anywhere because of the frailty and vulnerability of people in care homes.’
On Thursday the Government announced it was launching two new ‘Lighthouse’ laboratories alongside the seven it already operates to manage overwhelming demand.
The two will be built in Newcastle and Bracknell, and come ‘on-line’ alongside Newport and Charnwood by the end of October, to increase capacity to deliver 500,000 tests per day.
Government capacity stands at around 236,000 tests a day. Yesterday it was revealed that nine of the ten coronavirus hotspots in England recorded no new cases for the last two days as labs struggled to catch up with capacity.
WHAT ARE THE LIGHTHOUSE LABS?
What is a Lighthouse Lab?
The laboratories are set up to process the swab tests that are used to diagnose people with coronavirus.
They contain machines capable of a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which magnifies DNA samples from people’s saliva and mucous to look for signs of the virus.
Samples taken at swab testing centres are delivered to the labs where technicians analyse the samples and file the result into a database, which then sends the result back to the person who took the test and logs it in the Government’s data.
Where are the Lighthouse Labs?
- Milton Keynes
- Alderley Park, Cheshire
- Antrim, Northern Ireland
- Newcastle (planned)
- Bracknell (planned)
Who runs the Lighthouse Labs?
Ultimately controlled by the Department of Health, the labs are run with the help of pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as the universities of Cambridge, Glasgow and Dundee, and the scientific organisations UK Biocentre, Medicines Discovery Catapult and US-based PerkinElmer.
Those companies and institutes are understood to be the ones who supply technicians to staff the labs, while testing centres use outsourced staff supplied by contractors including Serco and Sodexo.
Director of the Lighthouse Labs network is Professor Chris Molloy, the CEO of a Government-funded not-for-profit medical institute based in Cheshire.
As well as the Lighthouse Labs, the Government also relies on laboratories run by the NHS, Public Health England and other universities and scientific institutions to help process tests.
The system is organised by the UK Lighthouse Labs Network on instruction from the Department of Health.
Director of the UKLLN is Professor Chris Molloy, the CEO of Medicines Discovery Catapult, a Government-funded non-profit medical institute based in Cheshire.
But a leading scientist has warned the Covid testing system is ‘dying on its a**e’ and accused labs of being poorly run with staff and equipment problems.
Genomics scientist and inventor Phil Robinson told The Times that the lighthouse labs were poorly managed, running out of staff and failed to set up automatic processes before a second wave of infections.
He told the paper: ‘Every part of the process was poor. The other ludicrous issue they have is they have 20 different types of tube coming into the lab. When you are running a high throughput lab it’s only sensible to have one. Why they haven’t standardised that I have no idea.’
As the wheels come off the testing system it has also been revealed that test and trace is taking up to two weeks to contact friends, relatives and colleagues of people who test positive for Covid-19.
Documents seen by The Guardian revealed the delays, and showed contact tracers at one firm hired by the Government to ensure close contacts of confirmed cases were tracked down and told to self-isolate have called contacts only to discover they were first identified as being at risk up to 14 days earlier.
One contact tracer said: ‘Some people are being told by test and trace that they need to self-isolate when their isolation period has been and gone.
‘I rang someone a few days ago to tell them that they were a contact of a confirmed case and therefore needed to self-isolate. But halfway through the call I realised that her self-isolation period began on 31 August.’
NHS Providers, which represents NHS trust leaders, argued that the country was ‘a long way off where we need to be with testing’.
Plans have also been revealed for a Lighthouse laboratory dealing with testing and a Covid-19 research hub, which could create 1,100 jobs in the North East of England.
The new facility would serve the region, as well as northern Cumbria and Yorkshire, and would be the latest expansion of the Government’s national Test and Trace programme.
The Lighthouse lab will be based in Gateshead with a specialist innovation lab at the Helix site in Newcastle, focused on developing new approaches to coronavirus science.
The project will be a partnership between Newcastle City Council and the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, as well as public health teams, local universities and industry.
Deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said trust leaders were ‘increasingly concerned’ that testing shortages could put pressure on NHS services and winter preparations due to growing staff absences.
‘Trust leaders are concerned that they do not have the detail on why there are shortages, how widespread they are or how long they will last,’ she added.
Yesterday the UK recorded 3,395 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the seven-day rolling average of infections to up 33 per cent in a week.
Britain also recorded 21 more deaths from coronavirus, with 18 in England, three in Wales, and none in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Members of the public are pictured queuing outside a coronavirus testing centre in Edmonton, North London, as people across the country say they are struggling to get hold of tests
Coronavirus testing centres have been pictured empty today despite hundreds of people saying they cannot book an appointment online. Meanwhile the company that runs them, Sodexo, is recruiting more staff and officials will say only that they are diverting capacity to badly-hit areas (Pictured: A test site in Leeds)