There’s no hiding the fact the Government’s handling of Covid-19 testing has been a bit of fiasco.
Public Health England (PHE) has largely met the most urgent demand for tests for patients arriving in with suspected symptoms.
But the need to test frontline medical staff, their families and other key workers has only just started coming on stream, nearly two months after the Government said it was “well prepared” for the coming pandemic.
There are various explanations for what went wrong. Some people think the Government originally planned to rely less heavily on testing as the outbreak entered the “suppression” phase.
Others blame PHE for insisting on too centralised an approach to testing that made recruiting of staff, machines and chemicals and hardware for testing harder.
Many independent labs in universities or private companies say the Department of Health was too slow to come to them for help.
And now, a global shortage in the ready-mixed chemicals, or reagents, used to run the tests — often found pre-packaged in the fiddly pre-packaged plastic test-tubes made for proprietary machines — are short supply globally.
So when Matt Hancock appeared at his first daily press conference since recovering from Covid-19 himself, he had a lot of explaining to do.
And he did it with a very ambitious five-point plan for Covid-19 testing.
- They will ensure every single patient in the NHS who needs a swab test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 will get one and they are on target to be doing 25,000 such tests a day by the end of April.
- Private labs and institutions will help them bring online brand new swab-testing capacity solely for NHS workers' families.
- Work will continue on a range of blood tests that look for the antibodies people make following infection with SARS-COV-2. The government is working with nine companies who’ve offered these tests. Currently they’re working to evaluate their effectiveness.
- Work has begun at a small scale to do surveillance for these antibodies in the blood of the general population. This will help scientists understand how infection is spreading across the country, and whether various interventions are working as it will reveal who has been infected with the virus even if they have no symptoms.
- A longer-term effort to get existing UK pharmaceuticals companies to make more and better tests for Covid-19 and whichever nasty pandemic virus comes along next.
What remains to be seen is how well the government does to deliver on these targets.
They have made promises in recent weeks about the speed of scaling up tests which they’ve not been able to keep.
As the number of cases rises, and global demands for tests continue they’ve got their work cut out.
Coronavirus: Everything you need to know