Coronavirus testing: Government accused of ‘misleading the public’ amid criticism over figures

Health Secretary told he is undermining trust in the government’s response

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 02 May 2020 13:19
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100,000 daily UK coronavirus tests target has been met and exceeded

The government has been accused of “misleading the public” over the number of people being tested for coronavirus, amid claims that ministers have “massaged” figures to make it look like targets have been met.

On Friday, the health secretary claimed that he had met his target of testing 100,000 people a day before the end of April, but significant discrepancies have emerged in the figures.

Matt Hancock had said 122,347 tests were performed in the 24 hours up to 9am on Friday, but a closer look at the figures revealed that many of the claimed tests counted had in fact not actually been completed yet.

The government had counted the posting of 27,497 home testing kits to households around the deadline as tests being carried out in the total, as well as 12,872 testing kits delivered to satellite locations – boosting its final day total by more than 40,000.

The change partly explains why the government claimed the 100,000 tests target had been met on the final day despite only 52,000 tests a day being carried out as of Tuesday and making very slow progress in the course of the month.

Just 39,573 tests were completed on the final day at NHS and Public Health England laboratories, with another 39,153 completed at drive-through sites.

The Health Service Journal reported concerns from a senior source close to the testing programme that the “massive one-day” boost in sending out tests, which were largely distributed by Amazon and Royal Mail, will prove to be “unsustainable” in terms of continuing to meet the target in the days ahead.

There are also concerns that home testing kits could prove to be inaccurate, with a high failure rate.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “If you cannot meet your target then the response should be ‘we are doing our best and testing has significantly increased’ it should not be to fudge the figures. Unbelievable. and risks undermining confidence in the minister and government.”

In another tweet Ms Rayner said Mr Hancock had “misled the public”.

Acting co-leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, also criticised ministers for playing “fast and loose with the truth”, adding: “The health secretary’s arbitrary target of 100,000 tests by the end of April was always a hostage to fortune, and the truth is, he missed it. It’s extremely disappointing the government have decided to massage the metrics rather than admit they fell short, as this will only undermine public confidence.”

He said that “the British public won’t be so easily fooled by manipulation” and that the UK was “still miles off the large-scale testing programme that will be an essential part of any plan to ease out of lockdown through a test, trace and isolate approach”.

Professor John Newton, the government’s testing tsar, defended ministers’ approach to counting.

“All the tests are only counted once, and you can count tests when they go out or when they come back in, and whichever way you do it we still meet the target,” he said.

He added that the use of home testing kids was “very satisfactory” despite concern that results from the self-swab kits may not be as accurate.

Professor Newton had previously stated: “For any tests which go outside of the control of the programme, they are counted as soon as they leave the programme. That’s for the tests that go out to people home and in satellite centres.”

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