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Coronavirus: Boris Johnson’s promise of 200,000 daily tests watered down by No 10

Prime minister says he 'bitterly regrets' epidemic of illness in care homes

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 06 May 2020 14:47 BST
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Boris Johnson doubles coronavirus testing target to 200,000 per day by end of May

Boris Johnson’s apparent promise of 200,000 new coronavirus tests has been watered down within less than three hours, as Downing Street said it referred only to testing capacity.

The prime minister unveiled the surprise target as he came under pressure from Keir Starmer in the House of Commons over the government’s response to the outbreak.

The Labour leader savaged Mr Johnson’s claim of “apparent success” in tackling the virus.

He also challenged health secretary Matt Hancock’s claim to have met his target of 100,000 daily tests, pointing out that the number had slumped well below this level every day since the deadline of 30 April.

Returning to the House of Commons for the first time since his recovery from coronavirus, Mr Johnson admitted that he “bitterly regrets” the epidemic of coronavirus in care homes.

Mr Johnson also said the government’s ”ambition” was now to hit 200,000 by the end of May and go beyond that at a later date. Although his announcement was a significant increase on Mr Hancock’s earlier commitment, it still fell short of the PM’s own promise as long ago as 25 March that test numbers would “very soon” reach 250,000.

Downing Street later said that the figure referred to testing capacity rather than the actual number of tests completed.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman described it as “an operational target to have the capacity across all the different testing pillars to do 200,000 tests a day”.

While the government puts the UK’s current testing capacity at around 108,000, the number of tests done has hovered around 85,000 for the past few days after topping 100,000 for one day last Thursday – the deadline for hitting Mr Hancock’s pledge.

In a notable ratcheting up of pressure on Johnson, Starmer said: “When the prime minister returned to work a week ago Monday, he said that many people were looking at the ‘apparent success’ of the government’s approach.

“But yesterday we learnt tragically, that at least 29,427 people in the UK have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus.

“That’s now the highest number in Europe. It’s the second highest in the world.

“That’s not success or apparent success. So can the prime minister tell us how on Earth did it come to this?”

Mr Johnson insisted that it was too early to make international comparisons, and said the government’s decisions had been guided throughout by “one overriding principle – to save lives and to protect our NHS”.

But Starmer retorted that the UK was “slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing and slow on the supply of protective equipment” and said the government had not “got to grips” with the problem in care homes, where deaths continued to rise despite first secretary of state Dominic Raab’s earlier claim that they were falling.

The Labour leader pointedly referred to the government’s announcement that it had met its 100,000 test target on the deadline day at the end of April as a “claim” and pointed out that they had fallen since, asking: “What does the prime minister think was so special about 30 April that meant testing that day was so high?”

Mr Johnson insisted that there were “palpable” improvements in care homes and hailed “amazing work” by all those involved in increasing testing numbers.

He said: “Capacity currently exceeds demand and we’re working on that. We’re running at about 100,000 a day.

“But the ambition clearly is to get up to 200,000 a day by the end of this month and then to go even higher. A fantastic testing regime is going to be absolutely critical to our long term economic recovery.”

Liberal Democrats warned that the PM’s new target must not be a “stunt”.

MP Munira Wilson said: “The health secretary’s target of 100,000 tests per day for coronavirus was always going to be a hostage to fortune, and the truth is, Hancock missed it.

“Even on their dubious accounting, the government has not made the target on a single day since 30 April. The prime minister’s new commitment to 200,000 tests by the end of May must be accompanied by a proper strategy and must not be a headline-chasing PR stunt.”

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