U.K. Provides 122,347 Tests, Claiming Key Coronavirus Target Met

(Bloomberg) --

U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock declared he had met his target of carrying out 100,000 coronavirus tests a day -- a crucial political goal -- but his assessment was immediately called into question amid claims he had massaged the numbers.

After weeks of criticism that the government had failed to roll out an adequate testing program, Hancock set a target at the beginning of April to complete 100,000 coronavirus a day tests by the end of the month. Officials and health specialists say testing is vital to getting a grip on the outbreak and enabling lockdown measures to eventually be lifted safely.

Speaking on Friday, Hancock said the target had been achieved, with 122,347 tests “provided” on Thursday.

“I knew that it was an audacious goal, but we needed an audacious goal,” Hancock said at the daily Downing Street press conference. “This unprecedented expansion in British testing capability is an incredible achievement. It’s not my achievement, it’s a national achievement.”

Yet within minutes of the minister’s declaration of success, he was facing questions over what the figures referred to. The 122,347 total announced by Hancock included 40,369 tests that had been sent out -- including to people in homes, care homes and some hospitals -- but that had not necessarily been processed.

Massaged Metrics

“Many would have expected the 100,000 promise to have been met by actually carrying out testing,” said opposition Labour Party health spokesman Jon Ashworth said. “Tonight’s headline figure shouldn’t count tests that hadn’t been used, or indeed, might never be used as a completed test.”

Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused the government of massaging the numbers -- a suggestion the government rejected.

“The Health Secretary’s arbitrary target of 100,000 tests by the end of April was always a hostage to fortune, and the truth is, he missed it,” Davey said in an email. “It’s extremely disappointing the government have decided to massage the metrics rather than admit they fell short, as this will only undermine public confidence.”

Hancock set the target for Covid-19 tests at a time when Boris Johnson’s government was under fire over its response to the pandemic, especially after it abandoned community testing in the middle of March -- a decision scientists and political critics have said may have contributed to the rapid spread of the disease in the following weeks.

The total number of deaths in the U.K. rose to 27,510 on Friday, up 739 on the previous day.

Second Peak

Hancock’s 100,000 testing target was controversial from the day it was announced on April 2. Some of Johnson’s officials have in the past played down the significance of testing, especially when reporters drew comparisons with much greater number of tests done in countries including Germany.

While the U.K. is now past the peak of infections, health officials are warning the outbreak may last until a vaccine is found. That means the need to track the spread of the disease will be critical to lifting movement restrictions in a way that avoids a second peak, they said.

Similar track-and-trace systems have been credited with reducing the spread of the virus in countries including South Korea, which has so far avoided the need for a full lockdown.

John Newton, the health official running the government’s testing program, said the lack of testing in the early stages of the outbreak had not lengthened the nation’s lockdown. The virus was already spreading too widely to be tracked when the restrictions were introduced, he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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