Ministers have been accused of "dodging scrutiny" after it was announced that the government is to stop publishing statistics on the number of people tested for coronavirus on a daily basis.
The announcement came as official figures showed that one-fifth of tests made available have not yet been processed. Downing Street confirmed that some people who apply for home-testing kits do not return them, though it is unclear what proportion these make up of the total number of unprocessed tests.
Downing Street said that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will now release a daily figure of tests processed rather than people tested, to reflect the fact that many health and social care workers are now being tested multiple times.
Labour blasted the situation as an "absolute shambles", saying ministers were trying to cover up their embarrassment at never having reached the goal set in early April of testing 100,000 people a day.
Labour health spokesman Justin Madders said that the true number of people tested was fewer than a third of the number of tests declared by the government each day.
But the prime minister's official spokesman rejected claims that the change was designed to hide ministers' blushes, telling reporters: "It's not the case and I think the fact that we are regularly testing hospital and care home staff is an important thing for us to be doing."
Under the old system, health and social care workers were counted only on their first test. The new system is likely to produce higher figures as repeated tests on an individual person will be included.
The PM’s spokesman said: “DHSC will no longer publish the number of people tested daily any more and will instead publish the number of daily tests processed.
“This is because the daily ‘people tested’ statistic only counts new people being tested.
“For example, someone who is tested in February and then tested again this month will only be counted once.
“Considering hospital and care home staff are now being tested on a regular basis, we don’t think this statistic would be an accurate reflection of the amount of daily testing that is taking place.
“Test and trace statistics published weekly will still include the number of people who have been tested.”
But Mr Madders said: “It seems that the real reason why the government stopped issuing figures for the number of people tested each day is because they never hit their 100,000 people-a-day target and they were too embarrassed to admit it.
“We know that the number of people actually tested is less than a third of the number of tests they state are being completed. It is clear that ministers are losing control over the testing regime and are failing to not only keep track of the tests but to ensure the results are returned swiftly.
“Ministers need to get to grips with the state of the testing regime and be far more open about where the failings are. As lockdown measures are relaxed it is vital the public have confidence that there is an effective test and trace system in place.”
The initial promise to carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of May was made by health secretary Matt Hancock, and Downing Street made clear in a social media post that it related to testing "100,000 people per day".
However, when Mr Hancock declared that the target had been met on the final day before the deadline, he included more than 40,000 testing kits which had been sent out and not yet returned, meaning that just 81,978 of the tests were actually processed. No information was supplied on how many of these were repeat tests on people who had been swabbed before.
Over the past month, figures for numbers of people tested have not been included in the slides of data displayed at Downing Street briefings.
Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Layla Moran said: “First the government cancelled the daily press conferences, now they’ve stopped publishing the numbers of people who’ve actually been tested. It seems that at every stage, ministers are dodging scrutiny and covering up for their own failures.
“Making data public is vital to ensure decision-makers are held to account. This shows we need to ensure full transparency through an independent and cross-party inquiry, so that this government can no longer try and pull the wool over our eyes.”
Official DHSC figures showed that only about 8 million of the 10.5 million tests made available since the start of the outbreak have so far been processed.
The PM's spokesman told reporters: "It will be the case that some members of the public may order a test and then for whatever reason they choose not to return that test. Obviously if people are ordering tests, it is entirely right that we should provide them with one."
It is understood that the 2.5 million unprocessed tests include some which have been sent out but not returned or returned without identification details, others which are still going through the system and a number which were ordered in large batches and are expected to come back over a matter of months.
A DHSC spokesperson said:"We have built, from scratch, a large-scale testing programme and can now provide a test to anybody who needs one.
“There are many reasons tests aren’t immediately processed including test kits sent to care homes in batches to make it easier for staff to carry out tests as required.
“It is a fact that the vast majority of people who book a test will receive their result the very next day.”
In the 24 hours up to 9am on Sunday a total of 164,849 tests were provided and the testing capacity for the day stood at 294,258, said Downing Street.
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