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In mid-March, the World Health Organization had a simple message to countries on how to tackle the spread of coronavirus: test, test, test. In the chaotic months of mixed messaging and policy U-turns that followed, the UK government developed a chronic habit of over-promising and under-delivering, not least when it came to testing.
We look back at the major events in the buildup of the UK’s testing regime, what was promised and what has happened since.
The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, insists the government is “rolling out a big expansion of testing” but declines to give a specific timetable.
Boris Johnson announces the ambition of carrying out 25,000 tests a day and says mass testing will be a gamechanger. Hancock repeats that general testing will be ramped up, but does so without a timeframe for deployment.
Johnson says the UK is aiming to go “up from 5,000 to 10,000 tests per day, to 25,000, hopefully very soon up to 250,000 per day”.
By 31 March, only 8,240 tests had been performed.
April: ‘100,000 tests a day’
On 1 April, Downing Street admits that only 2,000 out of 500,000 (or 0.4% of) frontline NHS workers have been tested.
Testing passes 10,000 a day for the first time and Matt Hancock pledges 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month.
Hancock announces the new NHS app for contact tracing.
None of the 3.5m tests bought by the government – and announced on 24 March – have been found to work so far.
Hancock says the prime minister’s 25 March commitment to get to 250,000 tests a day “still stands”, but that he wants to “put a very clear timeline” on the goal to get to 100,000 by the end of the month.
Hancock says the government has met its target to “carry out” 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, after conducting 122,347 tests on 30 April. But recent changes to how tests are being counted mean that newer home-testing kits and kits sent to “satellite testing locations” have been counted as they are dispatched.
Johnson promises a “world-beating” test-and-trace system will be up and running by 1 June.
NHS test and trace officially launches across England, but the accompanying app is delayed by several more weeks.
Data reveals that a third of people who tested positive for Covid-19 either couldn’t be traced by the £10bn test-and-trace programme in its first week of operation or failed to provide details of their contacts.
The government is forced to abandon its own app, after spending three months and millions of pounds on technology that experts had repeatedly warned would not work.
There are growing concerns about Serco’s role in test and trace amid reports of contact tracers “sitting around doing nothing” and being “paid to watch Netflix”. Serco had been directly awarded a contact-tracing contract worth £108m. Labour says the service is nowhere near world-beating and can’t tackle local outbreaks.
September: ‘Operation Moonshot’
Project “Operation Moonshot”, a rapid at-home mass testing programme, is intended to deliver 10m tests a day, and could cost £100bn.
The £10n test-and-trace system is condemned as “barely functional”, with demand up to four times its capacity and 90% of tests failing to hit the 24-hour turnaround target.
Contact tracing in England falls to a new low, with fewer than 60% of contacts being reached. Waiting times for test results soar to almost double the target at nearly 48 hours. One expert says the system is “struggling to make any difference” to the epidemic.
After months of questions over why border testing and quarantine policy is significantly more lax than other countries, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announces that travellers to England will be required to have a negative coronavirus test and will still need to quarantine for 10 days.
The next day, the government says the new rule will come into force on Monday at 4am instead of Friday as planned, to soften the impact on businesses and give them more time to prepare. In reality, it is because the Department for Transport failed to update its guidance in time.
Plans to deploy daily coronavirus tests in schools across England are thrown into disarray after the UK regulator refuses to formally approve the programme.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Testing times: how UK government fell short, again and again | Coronavirus