'What's important is social distancing' coronavirus testing 'is a side issue', says Deputy Chief Medical Officer

Testing is a “side issue” when it comes to reducing the number of deaths during the coronavirus pandemic, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer has said, suggesting instead that the focus must remain on social distancing.

The Government has come under increasing pressure to ramp up testing for Covid-19 and on Wednesday it emerged just 2,000 frontline NHS England staff have been tested.

On the same day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to increase testing, saying “this is how we will defeat Covid-19 in the end”.

Speaking on ITV’s Peston, Professor Jonathan Van Tam said social distancing is the key to reducing the rate of infection, rather than testing.

He said: "What matters is slowing the rate of new infections.

“And the only way you can slow the rate of new infections, irrespective of whether they're tested or not, it's a bit of a side issue to be truthful with you, what's important is the social distancing, stopping people coming into contact, so that the rate of new cases slows."

Asked if it would be days, weeks or months before any NHS worker who needed to be tested would get one, he said: "Where we are right now is that we as of yesterday have a testing capacity for 12,700 people.

“NHS staff are being prioritised along with patients and we have a clear plan that by the end of this month we'll be at 25,000 tests a day."

Some 1.2 million people work for the National Health Service, around 500,000 of who are on the frontline.

When asked if he thought everyone who needs testing by the end of April will be tested, he said: "Yes I do, actually - we need more testing, of course we need more testing, but this is coming on stream now."

The current capacity for testing is 12,700 per day – the target is to reach 25,000.

Germany, meanwhile, is overseeing more than 70,000 tests each day.

Asked why the UK is so far behind Germany in its testing capacity, he said: "It's very difficult to make comparisons between different countries.

“Germany is in a very different place in terms of their epidemic curve, in terms of their testing capacity.

“We know we need more, and we're working very hard to obtain more as fast as we possibly can."

He added the public's social distancing is moving the country in the right direction - and should show results in a couple of weeks.

He said: "They are keeping away from each other, they are stopping non-essential travel, they are working from home whenever they can and it is very clear that what they are doing us moving us in exactly the right direction.

"But I don't expect that to be today or tomorrow, I expect to see the results of that sacrifice if you like, that hard work of the British people, around about two weeks from now."

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know