Can Matt Hancock's promises about coronavirus testing really work?

Can Matt Hancock’s slick promises to test 100,000 a day in the fight against coronavirus really work?

CLAIM: We will test 100,000 people each day by the end of the month.

REALITY: Unfortunately, the detail on this is woefully lacking.

How will the Government hit this target, how many tests will be the vital ‘antigen’ swab tests that detect the presence of a virus, and how many will be the as-yet-unproven ‘antibody’ tests that tell if someone is immune?

The Government has already set several targets on this issue. On March 18 we were told it would test 10,000 patients a day by the following week – a threshold that has only just been met, more than a fortnight later.

We were then told 25,000 people would be tested daily by mid-April.

Now we are told we will test 100,000 a day by the end of the month, and 250,000 by some date in the future.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock who has tested positive for coronavirus, answering questions from the media via a video link during a media briefing in Downing Street, London on Thursday

CLAIM: We didn’t have a big diagnostics industry like Germany’s when the outbreak started.

REALITY: It is true Germany has a large network of laboratories it can use to process tests.

The German city of Mannheim also hosts the logistics base of the Swiss firm Roche Diagnostics, one of the biggest medical testing companies in the world.

But the UK has been very slow to utilise the capacity of the British testing firms it has – or the many universities and research labs that could boost centralised testing efforts.

CLAIM: It was vital to reserve all testing capacity for sick patients.

REALITY: Doctors agree it is crucial that all hospital patients with respiratory symptoms are tested for coronavirus so clinicians know how to treat them.

But the decision to deny hospitals the ability to test NHS staff may have been too restrictive.

Testing figures show the few centralised labs at the country’s disposal were not even at full capacity – suggesting NHS staff could have been tested alongside hospital patients.

In fact, those restrictions were only lifted last weekend.

CLAIM: Ministers did the right thing at the right time on the basis of the best available science.

REALITY: Britain’s war on coronavirus started very strongly – and experts were impressed by the decision to put respected academics such as Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty front and centre of the national response.

But scientists were shocked by the decision on March 12 to abandon widespread testing. It went against the central tenets of public health epidemic planning – that every case must be tested, isolated and all contacts tracked and traced. This has not been fully explained, with a blame game in full swing.

A person is swabbed at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in a car park at Chessington World of Adventures, in southwest London on Thursday

Another 569 deaths have been declared in the UK on Thursday, taking the total death toll to 2,921

CLAIM: Mass testing offers the key to the coronavirus puzzle.

REALITY: Experts agree that without a vaccine, testing is key. Without it experts have no idea how the virus is spreading, other than by tracking deaths and hospital admissions.

A widespread ‘surveillance’ testing programme – which Mr Hancock announced last night was being co-ordinated at the Porton Down military lab – could start to provide crucial insights that may eventually lead to a lifting of restrictions.

CLAIM: Getting antibody tests rolled out takes time.

REALITY: Officials made a huge mistake last week when they prematurely announced that millions of people would be able to get an antibody test ‘within days’ that would tell them if they were immune from the virus.

This boosted hopes – dashed within hours – of a quick end to the lockdown.

Finally Mr Hancock is being realistic with his promises. He confirmed last night he had sourced 17.5million antibody tests, but pointed out that some had already failed in initial checks.

The example of Spain, which had to return 9,000 faulty tests to China, is beginning to hit home.

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