Coronavirus test chief Harding denies system is failing as pressure mounts

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Only a third of people who turned up for a coronavirus test in England got results within 24 hours, new figures showed – but the head of the system denied it was “failing” and a senior minister hit out at people for “carping” about its flaws.

As pressure continued to mount on the Government over the chaos in the testing system, Baroness Harding – head of NHS Test and Trace – acknowledged that demand was significantly outstripping capacity.

But she suggested that the size of the system had been based on modelling by the Government’s scientific advisers, and suggested the problems were exacerbated by people without symptoms seeking tests for which they were ineligible.

Meanwhile, in the latest sign that stricter measures may be required to control the spread of the virus, around two million people in the north east of England will be banned from socialising with other households, following a “concerning” rise in Covid-19 cases.

New testing figures for England showed 33.3% of people who were swabbed at a regional site, local site or mobile testing unit received their result within 24 hours – despite Boris Johnson’s promise that they would all be turned around within that timescale by the end of June.

Almost nine out of 10 pillar 1 test results – swab testing in Public Health England labs and NHS hospitals – were made available within 24 hours of the laboratory receiving the test.

This proportion has remained similar since reporting began on July 9, and between September 3 and September 9, 88.8% of pillar 1 test results were made available within 24 hours.

Some 73.9% of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England were reached through the Test and Trace system in the week ending September 9.

This figure is up from 69.5% on the previous week, but below the 77.2% reached in the week to August 19.

Lady Harding told MPs “demand is significantly outstripping the capacity we have” to conduct coronavirus tests, but “I strongly refute that the system is failing”.

The number of people calling 119 or visiting the website to try to book tests was “three to four times the number of tests that we currently have available” – although that would involve some double counting.

But she said the number of symptomatic people – the only people who should be eligible for diagnostic tests – was “significantly lower” than the number trying to get a swab.

She suggested around a quarter of those coming forward for a test did not have symptoms.

Lady Harding said the system’s capacity was based on modelling by the Government’s scientific advisory panel Sage.

In anticipation of the return of schools, “we planned for a sizeable increase in testing capacity”, she said, but “plainly we don’t have enough testing capacity today and we are doing everything in our power to increase the testing capacity”.

Weekly rate of new Covid-19 cases in England
(PA Graphics)

“In none of the modelling was that expected, and that’s why I say I think we all have to think really hard about how we prioritise the use of these tests.”

The latest figure showed an ability to carry out 242,817 tests a day, but the Government has pledged that will increase to 500,000 by the end of October.

Tests are being prioritised, with around 50% accounted for by NHS patients and staff and social care.

Lady Harding said more tests were also targeted in outbreak areas and then, among the wider population, key workers – especially teachers – could be given priority.

Figures on Thursday showed there had been a further 3,395 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, and 21 more people had died within 28 days of testing positive.

This brings the UK death toll to 41,705, although separate figures published by the statistics agencies show 57,500 cases where Covid-19 was mentioned on a death certificate.

The new restrictions in the North East will come into effect on Friday in Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham.

Residents will be banned from socialising in homes or gardens with people outside their own households or support bubble, food and drink venues will be restricted to table service only and leisure and entertainment venues must also close at 10pm.

In other developments:

– A total of 18,371 new people tested positive for Covid-19 in England in the week to September 9, a rise of 75% in positive cases on the previous week.

– YouGov’s coronavirus tracker poll showed that the proportion of Britons who approve of the way the Government has responded to the pandemic has fallen to its lowest level yet. Some 30% think the Government has handled the issue of Covid-19 well, with 63% saying it has handled it badly.

– A lockdown was coming into effect in Rhondda Cynon Taf in South Wales, meaning people must not enter or leave the area without a reasonable excuse.

– Thailand and Singapore have been added to the list of travel corridors, meaning travellers arriving in England from those countries after 4am on Saturday will no longer need to self-isolate for 14 days.

Mocking the Government’s failings over testing in the Commons,  shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said: “It’s become not so much test and trace, more like trace a test.”

Labour MP Richard Burgon said Lady Harding should be sacked.

Dr Layla McCay, director at the NHS Confederation, said: “It appears we are now in a position where the spread of the virus is no longer being adequately controlled, with new cases nearly tripling compared with the end of August.”

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