Some 100,000 people in the UK will be tested for coronavirus each day by the end of the month, the Health Secretary has said as he outlined the Government's five-point plan to reach this target.
Matt Hancock said the five pillars of the plan would see a "ramping up" of testing capabilities across the UK.
In recent days, the Government has been criticised for being able to carry out just 10,000 Covid-19 tests per day.
Mr Hancock, who was taking the daily coronavirus press conference after returning from self-isolation, said "significant progress" had already been made.
He continued that the Government had enlisted the help of companies such as Amazon and Boots, as well as universities and research labs to help them hit their target of 100,000 tests per day.
He said once an antibody test was approved, which would confirm whether someone has had the virus, immunity certificates could be issued.
“We are looking at an immunity certificate – how people who have had the disease, have got the antibodies and therefore have the immunity can show that and so get back, as much as possible, to normal life,” he said.
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Mr Hancock, who last Friday revealed he had caught coronavirus, explained why the UK was so far behind other countries in terms of testing capacity.
He said the UK lacked a large diagnostics industry so was having to build from a “lower base” than the likes of Germany, which has been able to carry out around 50,000 coronavirus tests a day.
He said a country-wide shortage of swabs had been “resolved” but that there remained a “global challenge” around sourcing the reagent chemicals needed for the tests.
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Mr Hancock outlined the order of testing prioritisation as being patients, then critical care staff, then NHS and social care staff more generally, then other key workers and finally the general population
Part of the plan to increase testing involves using commercial partners, including universities and private businesses to establish more swab testing.
He said "companies like Amazon and Boots" were helping to "build from scratch a network of new labs and testing sites across the country".
"This brand new service has just launched and is ramping up rapidly," he said.
The new five pillar plan outlines the ambitions to:
- Scale up swab testing in PHE labs and NHS hospitals for those with a medical need and the most critical workers to 25,000 a day by mid to late April;
- Deliver increased commercial swab testing for critical key workers in the NHS, before then expanding to key workers in other sectors;
- Develop blood testing to help know if people have the right antibodies and so have high levels of immunity to coronavirus;
- Conduct surveillance testing to learn more about the spread of the disease and help develop new tests and treatments; and
- Create a new National Effort for testing, to build a mass-testing capacity at a completely new scale
His comments follow a video posted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday evening, in which he committed to "massively ramp up" testing as it would allow Britain to “unlock the coronavirus puzzle” and "defeat it in the end”.
Public Health England's medical director Paul Cosford insisted to ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke that capabilities are "ramping up as we speak".
He pointed to five drive-through testing facilities which already available for NHS staff and said there was "another four to come on stream this week".
But on Thursday afternoon helicopter camera shots showed testing facilities in Chessington, North Greenwich and Wembley "virtually empty".
Mr Hancock said NHS staff will be able to get tested for Covid-19 “absolutely before the end of the month”.
He added: “With 5,000 tested since (staff testing) started at the weekend we’ve clearly made significant progress.”
Mr Hancock said the figure of 100,000 tests by the end of April will cover all five of his testing “pillars”.
He added that large-scale antibody testing – to see if someone has been infected with the virus and recovered – will only be rolled out when clinicians are confident it is a valid test.
Mr Hancock said there was a “challenge” in ensuring the public could have “confidence” in the tests being used on NHS staff.
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He added that a number of testing methods being analysed had “failed” to positively diagnose a coronavirus patient.
He said: “No test is better than a bad test.”
Mr Hancock also announced more than £13 billion of historic NHS debt will be written off to place trusts in a “stronger position” to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
He said he had made £300 million available for community pharmacies and that he wanted to make sure “every part” of the health and care system is supported.
He added: “Today, to help NHS trusts to deliver what’s needed without worrying about past finances, I can announce that I’m writing off £13.4 billion of historic NHS debt.
“This landmark step will not only put the NHS in a stronger position to be able to respond to this global coronavirus pandemic, but it will ensure that our NHS has stronger foundations for the future too.”
Mr Hancock paid an emotional tribute to NHS staff who have lost their lives, and expressed his “deepest condolences” to the friends and families of all coronavirus victims.
“Doctors, nurses, mental health professionals: they have paid the ultimate price for their service – working to care for others," he said.
“I just want to say this on behalf of all my colleagues in health and social care: I am awed by the dedication of colleagues on the frontline, every single person, who contributes to the running of this diverse and caring institution that our nation holds so dear.
“Many of those who have died who are from the NHS were people who came to this country to make a difference, and they did, and they’ve given their lives in sacrifice, and we salute them.”
On daily testing levels, Mr Hancock said: “Yes, we do hope to get to 250,000.
“The commitment that I’m making today is that our goal is 100,000 by the end of the month.
“I want to bring this whole national effort to bear on that and then we will keep going once we have reached that 100,000, and so, absolutely, I stand by the commitment that the Prime Minister made of 250,000.”