LONDON — The U.K. government declared Friday it had met its target to carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock made this target a key focus of the government’s response to the pandemic after sustained criticism that the U.K. lagged behind other countries in testing capacity.
A total of 122,347 tests were conducted in the 24 hours to 9 a.m. on Friday, an increase from 10,000 daily tests when Hancock set the target at the start of the month.
“I knew it was an audacious goal but we needed an audacious goal because testing is so important to get us back on our feet,” Hancock said at Friday’s Downing Street press conference. “Testing is crucial to fight the virus.”
Hancock faced criticism at the press conference because the total number of tests included 27,000 test kits sent out to people’s homes but not yet processed and also 12,000 sent out to satellite testing centers which are located as places such as hospitals.
Although the U.K. isn’t carrying out the most number of tests in Europe — that title goes to Germany, which is carrying out about half a million tests per week for free, with a target of 200,000 tests per day — it has delivered a substantial increase in testing capacity in a very short period of time. By contrast, France’s testing target aims to boost daily tests from 30,000 at the start of April to 100,000 by June.
The target had heaped political pressure on the health secretary, with one anonymous No.10 staffer briefing the Telegraph that it may “come back and bite” Hancock.
However, experts warn that the U.K.’s increased testing capacity is not sustainable in its current form and will need to be coupled with a robust expansion of contact-tracing capability if it is to provide the country with a route out of lockdown.
The U.K.’s testing capacity has been boosted by a combination of mobile testing sites, drive-through sites, public and commercial labs, home testing kits and help from research institutes and universities. Hancock has previously said that the ultimate goal of the government is “that anyone who needs a test should have one.”
An even more ambitious U.K. target of carrying out 250,000 tests per day, announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in March, still has no deadline. The U.K. will continue expanding its testing capacity, with another testing lab put together by pharmaceutical companies AstroZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline launching in Cambridge soon, Hancock said.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said Friday that the 250,000 target would also include the antibody tests the U.K. hopes to be able to use as soon as a reliable test becomes available. He added Hancock’s target “has been very effective in driving up the capacity in the system.”
But experts have rejected the use of targets as PR campaigns and insisted the emphasis should be on sustainability and strategy.
“Whether they meet the target or not doesn’t really matter,” said Karol Sikora, chief medical officer at the Rutherford Cancer Centres. “The most important thing is the sustainability of the program and getting it to industrial scale.”
Research institutes and universities have played a crucial role in helping the government meet the target, but after the initial three months, they will probably want to return to scientific research, Sikora warned. At that point, Public Health England must have industrial-scale laboratories able to handle thousands of samples a day in centers around the country, he added.
“Public Health England set up some mega laboratories, but they are not fully robotic, they are not using modern technology that allows very rapid screening,” he said. “We need industrial-type approaches, the sort the pharmaceutical industry is good at. We need to have industry joining in and it has to be permanent: We are going to be doing testing for at least a year.”
Next goal: Contact tracing
Pressure will now shift toward the government’s contact-tracing program and the timeline for its rollout. Hancock has said the scheme will start on May 11, but media reports Friday suggest the launch has been postponed to the end of the month.
The National Health Service has drawn up plans to trial its test-and-trace scheme on the Isle of Wight first, including a new contact-tracing smartphone app produced by NHS developers. Recruitment for 18,000 tracers is also underway, but the government has not yet disclosed how many of them have already been hired.
David Nabarro, the World Health Organization’s special envoy on COVID-19, said Friday that it would be “perfectly reasonable” for the U.K. to start lifting the lockdown restrictions before a full contact-tracing program is up and running.
“You don’t need to have 100 percent contact tracing in order to get the R-number down,” he told the BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. “The contact tracing is an absolutely essential part of reducing transmission, and getting that capacity as widely spread as possible is key to getting the transmission as low as you can. But you certainly can release the lockdown while you’re building up the case finding and contact-tracing capacity — that’s what most other countries are doing.”
The article has been updated with additional information.
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