Coronavirus modelling did not predict 'real sizable increase in testing demand', Dido Harding admits

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

Coronavirus modelling did not predict the “real sizable increase in demand” in testing “we have seen over the last few weeks”, the boss of NHS Test and Trace has said. Speaking before the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Baroness Dido Harding admitted the modelling did not match up the demand seen at test centres recently. But she said testing capacity had been based on modelling by the Sage scientific advisory group. “I don’t think anybody was expecting, to see the real sizable increase in demand that we’ve seen over the last few weeks, so none of the modelling was expecting that, and that’s why we all need to think really hard about how we prioritise the use of these tests," Baroness Harding said. “We’re clear you should only get tested if you have the coronavirus symptoms. “So we’re all going to have to play our part in managing a constraint capacity, even as we double it and keep going beyond that.”

On Friday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he disagreed with Baroness Harding's assessment.

He said: "Any rational scenario planning for September which involved the schools going back and people going back to work was bound to throw up the likelihood of a great increase in the number of people requiring a test.

“The government's side of the bargain was to get a testing regime that was fit for purpose and we haven’t got one that’s even serviceable.”

Dido Harding says she's confident testing will reach its target of 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. Credit: PA

But she was questioned by chair Greg Clark, why the capacity was not increased during the quiet summer period. He told her: “It is dispiriting to find that we are now in September, in circumstances which are entirely predictable – people are going back to school, people are going back to work – and we haven’t had the right capacity put in place during the quieter times of June, July and August.” In anticipation of the return of schools “we planned for a sizable increase in testing capacity”, she said. “As the Prime Minister said yesterday, plainly we don’t have enough testing capacity today and we are doing everything in our power to increase the testing capacity.”

A walk-in testing centre in Redbridge, Ilford only accepting people if they have an appointment booked. Credit: PA

Baroness Harding told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that the latest capacity for diagnostic tests was 242,817. She admitted “it’s clear from today that demand is significantly outstripping the capacity we have” to conduct coronavirus tests. People have had to wait days for a result and others are being told to drive for hours to get a test. Baroness Harding said the “constraint” in the testing system was in processing and laboratories, not in test centres.

She said: “We have to restrict the number of people who are taking tests in the testing sites so that there’s no risk of those tests going out of date when they are processed in the labs. “So I do understand how frustrating it feels that when you arrive in the testing site and it doesn’t look like it’s very busy and you can see it could do more, but the capacity constraint isn’t in those testing sites, it’s back in the lab. “And it would be very dangerous to send too many samples back to the laboratory, have them not be processed and people not know what their results were.”

Baroness Harding said the testing constraint was not at centres but at labs. Credit: PA

But she told MPs that she was “very confident” the government would reach its target of carrying out 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. Baroness Harding said: “It won’t be a completely linear journey of 10,000 a day, but what you will see is substantial increases every week between now and the end of October.” This will be driven by the addition of new testing laboratories alongside new technology such as robotic processing, she said. Baroness Harding added: “The testing team have hit every single one of their testing targets over the course of the last six months as they grow this industry from 2,000 tests a day to over 240,000 today.

"So we’re very confident that we will deliver on our 500,000 by the end of October.”