Coronavirus: Health minister suggests number of people being tested is not important, after failure to provide figures for nearly two weeks

Edward Argar points to the total provided, including multiple tests on the same person - 'That’s what we are focusing on, that’s the important statistic'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 03 June 2020 09:24 BST
Health Minister Edward Argar: 'I'm focused on the number of tests carried out because that's what we're measuring'

A health minister has suggested the number of people being tested for coronavirus is not important, as he came under fire for the failure to provide figures for nearly two weeks.

Edward Argar also insisted he still did not know how many people are going through the test-and-trace programme – even after leaked data put the number at just 1,749 in its first four days.

He described those statistics, obtained by Channel 4, as “outdated, partial and leaked”, but admitted: “I don’t have the precise figures.”

On the daily numbers of people being tested, Mr Argar refused three times to provide a statistic – instead arguing what mattered was the total provided, which includes multiple tests on the same person.

“That’s what we are focusing on, that’s the important statistic,” he told Sky News.

Until now, ministers had blamed the failure to provide statistics on a data blip with one provider, amid evidence the actual number of people being tested is as low as 40,000 a day.

The interview came after the statistics chief accused the government of misleading the public with the daily data – where the figure for the numbers tested now appears as ‘unavailable’.

Once multiple tests and those carried out for surveys, rather than diagnostic reasons, are stripped out, analysts believe as few as 40,000 people are tested and receive results each day.

During the interview, Mr Argar also:

* Refused to say when test-and-trace figures would be provided – saying only they would be set out on “a weekly basis”.

* Admitted not all the programme’s staff were “working flat out” – after some said they had nothing to do – but described that as “a positive”, because the system was ready for an increase in work.

* Could not say how many people used the smartphone app in trials on the Isle of Wight. Its introduction nationwide has been delayed because of technical problems.

* Declined to say what action would be taken to protect people from an ethnic minority backgrounds – after an official report confirmed their greater risk – saying there was an “awful lot in there that we still need to consider”.

Mr Argar also said he hoped people would be able to go on holiday this year, ahead of home secretary Priti Patel, who will set out quarantine rules on Wednesday.

Portugal's foreign minister has said his country is in discussions with the UK about “air bridges” so tourists can avoid being shut at home for 14 days.

“I hope that people will be able to go on holiday at some point this year, but I can't make that promise, and because I have to be cautious and go with the science and I don't have that forward view yet of how a second wave or otherwise might behave,” he warned.

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