Coronavirus: Tony Blair calls for appointment of minister to oversee mass testing

Former prime minister wants cabinet member in charge of ‘literally nothing else’ – and sympathises with Boris Johnson’s ‘hellish situation’

Adam Forrest
Monday 06 April 2020 17:48
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Matt Hancock says he wants to introduce £100,000 tests per day by the end of this month

Former prime minister Tony Blair has called on the government to appoint a minister solely responsible for bringing about mass testing for the coronavirus in the UK.

The ex-Labour leader said one cabinet member should be in charge of a specialist unit devoted to “literally nothing else” other than making sure testing is ramped up quickly.

“Unless you’re able to get mass testing, at scale with speed, I don’t see how you get a way out of this lockdown – and I’m terrified by the economic damage we’re doing with every week this lockdown continues,” Mr Blair told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The former occupant of No 10 expressed his sympathy with Boris Johnson, describing his hospitalisation for the virus as a “hellish situation”.

“I completely agree with the government’s strategy … I’m not making a criticism, I’m making a suggestion,” said Mr Blair, recommending that the appointed minister’s new unit would contain scientific advisers and people with experience of mass production.

“If I was handling this situation now, I think I would put a senior minister in charge of testing and nothing else, with people who have industrial experience, business experience of how you ramp up industrial-scale production,” he said.

“I would have that unit reporting directly to the prime minister, and doing literally nothing else than ensuring we get the two types of test that matter … You need people who are empowered decision makers, who can take decisions fast.”

Amid criticism that testing was not increasing quickly enough, health secretary Matt Hancock has said the government is aiming to carry out 100,000 coronavirus tests a day in England by the end of April.

Labour has demanded clarity over how many would be swab tests identifying those currently infected, and how many would be antibody checks showing that people have had the disease and recovered.

Mr Blair said the UK needed to boost the number of diagnostic swab tests which detect whether someone currently has Covid-19, and antibody tests which detect whether someone has previously had the disease.

“The vast majority of the public will either not have the disease, or, increasingly, they will have had it and probably therefore they are immune for this cycle,” he said.

“So the problem is you have to lockdown the entire country, even though those who require isolation are probably only a small proportion … The only way you resolve this is through testing on a mass scale.”

Mr Blair added: “I’ve never known a situation like this. If it goes on for a long period of time, then that economic damage doesn’t just effect the economy per se, it also effects your ability to operate your health care system effectively.”

Giving Mr Johnson his best wishes, he told Today: “I wish him a speedy recovery. I have every sympathy and solidarity with him. I know it must be a hellish situation to be in.”

Asked whether the prime minister should hand over control while ill, Mr Blair said: “I’m not going to second guess them on that. He knows the state of his own condition and he will be judging it carefully himself, I’m sure.”

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