Government testing chief plays down Matt Hancock's target amid row

‘Don’t get hung up on targets’: Government testing chief John Newton backs Matt Hancock by claiming 100,000-a-day goal WAS hit despite including 40,000 coronavirus kits that were posted and not processed

  • Prof John Newton insisted the 100,000 per day target had been met despite row
  • He said disputes over numbers were inevitable when ‘politicians set targets’
  • Ministers referred to tests ‘carried out’ but many were counted when posted out 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

The government’s testing co-ordinator insisted people should not get ‘hung up on targets’ today as he argued the goal for 100,000 checks a day had been met.

Prof John Newton brushed off a row over whether the numbers had been cooked, stressing the big picture was capacity had risen sharply and there would always be disputes when ‘politicians set targets’.  

The Health Secretary declared at the Downing Street press briefing last night that there had been 122,000 tests in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday, a huge increase from barely 10,000 at the beginning of April.

But it emerged around 40,000 of those counted had been posted out to homes and hospitals – and not actually processed.

Boris Johnson and other ministers had previously been stating that the government figures covered the number of tests ‘carried out’ per day.  

The spat came as senior Tories urge the government to draw a line under wrangling about the target and focus on implementing a South Korea-style contact tracing system.

The coordinator of the government’s testing drive, Prof John Newton (pictured in Downing Street yesterday), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the target had been met ‘whichever way you count it’ – although he did not give figures for how many tests had actually been completed in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday

A medical worker takes a swab at a testing station at Chessington, Surrey, yesterday

Health Secretary Matt Hancock declared at the Downing Street press briefing last night that there had been 122,000 tests in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday, a huge increase from barely 10,000 at the beginning of April

Mr Hancock said last night that 18,000 contact tracers to track those who have been near an infected person will be in place by mid-May and the numbers will be expanded if necessary

Home testing kits for coronavirus are as accurate as swabs taken in drive-in centres, the Government’s testing tsar has said, as he defended the way tests are counted.

Professor John Newton said the Government’s trials of home tests were ‘very satisfactory’ amid concern that results from the self-swab kits may not be as accurate.

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘We know that the testing rates are the same if people swab themselves as opposed to being swabbed, and we’ve also done some trials of posting them out and getting them back and they’ve all shown that it’s just as good.

‘No test is perfect: the positive tests are extremely reliable because you are detecting the genetic material. A negative test is a good guide but it’s not an absolute guarantee that you are free of the virus so we just need to be aware of that.

‘But it still helps a lot in making decisions, but you do need to take other factors into account if you have a negative test and that’s one of the reasons why we sometimes repeat the test.’

Prof Newton told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the target had been met ‘whichever way you count it’ – although he did not give figures for how many tests had actually been completed in the 24 hours.

Prof Newton said: ‘We don’t want to get too hung up on the targets… what matters is we have got substantial capacity.’ 

He said: ‘It’s a big number however you count it. All the tests are only counted once, and you can count tests when they go out, or when they come back in. Whichever way you do it we still beat the target.’ 

Prof Newton also delivered what appeared to be a dig at Mr Hancock, saying that people should not get ‘hung up’ on targets.

‘These are the sorts of discussions you get when politicians set targets. What we are focusing is on delivering what people need,’ he said.

NHS Providers chief Chris Hopson told Sky News that there had been too much ‘simple focus on a number for April 30’ in government, saying it ‘misses the point’.

‘What you really need to be sure about is can everybody who needs a test actually get one?’ he said. 

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said last night: ‘Labour has repeatedly called for more testing, and increasing testing is an important milestone. 

‘But many would have expected the 100,000 promise to have been met by actually carrying out testing, not simply because 39,000 kits had been mailed out. 

‘The headline figure shouldn’t count tests that hadn’t been used, or indeed, might never be used as a completed test. ‘   

The UK’s death toll in hospitals, care homes and the wider community has hit 27,510 as of 5pm on Thursday – up by 739 on the day before. 

Mr Hancock said last night that the next phase of dealing with Covid-19 – which will include more community testing and contact tracing – will allow the Government ‘to reassert, as much as is safely possible, the liberty of us all’.

Mr Hancock said 18,000 contact tracers to track those who have come into contact with an infected person will be in place by mid-May and the numbers will be expanded if necessary. 

South Korea-style contact tracing will start on the Isle of Wight next week – as Tory MPs demand ministers ‘get on with it’ amid a row over ‘fixing’ the coronavirus testing target.

Crucial tracking systems will be piloted for 140,000 residents amid frantic efforts to find ways of controlling the deadly outbreak that do not cripple the economy.

People will be bombarded with messages urging them to download an NHS app that collects data on who has been in close proximity. Together with wide-scale testing, it means that officials will be able to trace anyone who might have been exposed. 

Mr Hancock told reporters last night: ‘In recent weeks we’ve had to impinge on historic liberties to protect our NHS and our loved ones and yet our goal must be freedom. 

‘Freedom from the virus, yes, and we will not lift measures until it is safe to do so. 

‘But also we care about the restoration of social freedom and economic freedom too – each citizen’s right to do as they please.’ 

But he said that, for now, people must stay at home while the number of cases of coronavirus is driven down further.  

Statistics collated by the Our World in Data website shows that the UK trails below some countries for tests carried out per 1,000 people – although the figures are not collected in a standard way around the world

In happier times tourists enjoy the beach in Ventnor on the south coast of the Isle of Wight

But former Brexit Secretary David Davis urged Mr Hancock to abandon the focus on targets and ‘get on with it’. 

‘They need to trace as many people as soon as possible,’ he added. ‘The more you find the more you are going to cut the R number. In my mind, there is no policy argument for not doing it.’

Mr Davis also voiced concerns that the government was too reliant on the NHS app, pointing out that similar software in Singapore had only been downloaded by 20 per cent of the population and they had instead relied on contact tracers on the ground.   

NHS medical director Professor Stephen Powis said officials will be studying whether stricter measures will or will not have to continue to apply to the elderly when the lockdown is eased. 

‘The over-70s can be absolutely fit and healthy, it’s not the case that everybody over 70 has a chronic health condition or underlying disease,’ he said. 

‘As we look forward… I think it’s a perfectly reasonable question to say how would that work in age groups and age bands? 

‘Although we do know that complications and unfortunately deaths are more common in the elderly even without complications, I think that’s for consideration and that’s work that we will need to do as we move forward.’ 

 

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