Announcing a five-point plan to dramatically step up testing from the current 10,000 a day, the health secretary told a 10 Downing Street press conference: “That is the goal and I am determined that we will get there.”
But his promise fell well short of the 250,000 tests pledged by prime minister Boris Johnson two weeks ago.
And Labour demanded clarity over how many of the 100,000 would be antibody checks showing that people have had the disease and recovered, and how many will be the crucial antigen tests identifying those currently infected.
Despite figures showing the largest daily increase in coronavirus deaths – 569 – NHS England medical director Stephen Powis said there were “reasons to be hopeful” that strong public observance of social distancing measures was beginning to rein in the outbreak.
However, he signalled that he is expecting the three-week lockdown announced by the prime minister to be extended when it comes up for review next week, saying: “There are reasons to be hopeful, but reasons not to be complacent, and reasons to continue to comply with these measures.
“When it comes to the three weeks that were announced for these initial measures, that will simply not be the end of it. The virus will still be here and we will still need to work out how we deal with it.”
Mr Hancock initially said that his 100,000 target – for England only – covered all kinds of tests, with 25,000 antigen swab tests to be conducted on patients and frontline NHS staff in Public Health England and NHS labs, and others for key workers carried out in commercial facilities. But he later suggested that he believes he can meet the target even if none of the nine antibody tests being analysed by Public Health England proves accurate enough for use.
And he gave a “firm commitment” that all NHS staff needing an antigen test will have it by the end of the month.
Mr Powis revealed that 8 per cent of the health service’s 1.3 million staff – around 104,000 people – are at home after they or a household member displayed coronavirus symptoms, many of whom could return to work if tested.
Labour demanded clarity on the health secretary’s plans and called for the appointment of a minister for testing to push it through.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth questioned whether enough trained staff were available to hit the target, adding: “A commitment to 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month is welcome but of course it’s not the 250,000 Boris Johnson promised.
“If the government really want to scale up testing we need a clear and effective route into government and PHE’s testing community for suppliers. There has been too much confusion over what chemicals and reagents are needed or available. We need a testing minister to grip supplies and procurement.”
Appearing in public for the first time after seven days of self-isolation with the Covid-19 infection, Mr Hancock said he would “level with” the public about the missed targets so far, pointing to a lack of a homegrown testing industry like Germany’s and a shortage of chemicals and swabs.
And, in an appeal to the private sector to throw its weight behind the drive to defeat coronavirus, he said: “I’m calling on the life sciences industry, the universities and the NHS and Public Health England to unite together to meet that goal.”
The health secretary defended receiving a test himself, saying they were offered to anyone in “senior decision-making” roles.
He sought to ease fears of a gathering crisis, as the UK death toll reached 2,921, saying the NHS still had 1,800 spare critical care beds, with one in four beds in London unoccupied.
Ministers have been on the back foot over record levels of staff absence from hard-pressed hospital wards – still only 5,000 with symptoms have been tested.
Mr Hancock set out the five prongs of his new plan, to be led by Public Health England director of health improvement Professor John Newton:
* Expand swab testing in NHS laboratories and hospitals to test 25,000 key critical workers a day by mid to late April.
* Introduce new swab testing by companies, including Amazon and Boots, with NHS staff and families offered them first.
* Introduce fingerprick blood tests to find out if someone has had the virus and now has immunity, enabling many to return to work.
* Conduct “surveillance testing” to learn more about the spread of the disease and help develop new tests and treatments.
* Build a mass-testing capacity “at a completely new scale”.
He confirmed that the government is planning to issue “immunity certificates” to individuals who test positive for coronavirus antibodies, indicating that they are immune.
Mr Hancock said: “I return from illness more determined than ever to fight this disease. We will bring together the best minds, we will bring together the best science that this country has to offer, and we will work with our friends and allies from around the world as we do so.
“We are in the midst of a war against an invisible enemy. And it is a war in which all of humanity is on the same side.
“And history has shown that when the world unites against a common foe, then we will prevail.”
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