The Health Secretary has pledged that 100,000 Covid-19 tests will be carried out per day in England by the end of April, as he set out a new five-part strategy to increase testing across the country.
After several days of intense scrutiny over current levels of testing, the Health Secretary said it was still hoped the nation could reach 250,000 tests per day – a goal originally set by the Prime Minister.
Experts say testing is important to track the virus and give the UK hope of exiting the lockdown, with those who are confirmed to have already had the virus able to return to work.
Mr Hancock’s 100,000-a-day pledge includes antigen tests that tell people whether they currently have Covid-19, as well as antibody tests to see whether people have previously had the infection.
The Government is currently working with nine potential providers who are battling to produce an antibody test, and is also looking at whether people could be issued with immunity certificates to prove they are able to resume their usual activities.
Mr Hancock said he would only approve those tests that worked, adding: “Approving tests that don’t work is dangerous and I will not do it.”
Mr Hancock, who has recovered from Covid-19 and came out of self-isolation on Thursday, said he came back “redoubled in my determination to fight this virus with everything I’ve got.”
As he paid an emotional tribute to those who have died, including doctors, nurses and mental health professionals, he said the Government would “strain every sinew to defeat” coronavirus once and for all.
“If the past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that we are steadfast as a country in our resolve to defeat this invisible killer” he continued.
Mr Hancock said the UK lacked a large diagnostics industry so was having to build from a “lower base” than the likes of Germany, which is testing around 70,000 people per 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.
Mr Hancock said NHS staff would 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.”
Currently, around 10,000 tests per day are being carried out in the UK.
Mr Hancock said his five part strategy was:
– Swab testing in Public Health England (PHE) and NHS labs
– Using commercial partners, including universities and private businesses, to establish more swab testing
– Introducing antibody blood tests to determine whether people have had Covid-19
– Surveillance to determine the rate of infection and how it is spreading across the country
– Build an “at-scale” diagnostics industry to reach 100,000 tests by the end of April.
The Cabinet minister defended his decision to prioritise testing of patients over NHS staff and said he thought any health secretary would have done the same.
Mr Hancock said: “I understand why NHS staff want tests, so they can get back to the front line, of course I do.
“But I took the decision that the first priority has to be the patients for whom the results of a test could be the difference in treatment that is the difference between life and death.
“I believe anybody in my shoes would have taken the same decision.”
The Health Secretary also announced that more than £13 billion of historic NHS debt would be written off to place trusts in a “stronger position” to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
Figures showed that 5.7% of doctors were currently absent due to Covid-19, he added.
Earlier in the week, the Royal College of Physicians said around one in four were off work either sick or in a household with somebody who was ill.
It comes as Downing Street said on Thursday that Boris Johnson was still showing coronavirus symptoms.
The Prime Minister’s seven days of self-isolation end on Friday but it is unclear whether he plans to leave the Downing Street flat where he has been staying.
Latest data shows 2,921 people were confirmed to have died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Wednesday.
The youngest person who died without underlying health conditions was aged 25.
The total is up by 569 from 2,352 the day before and is the biggest day-on-day increase so far, just above the 563 reported the day before.
Meanwhile, 78-year-old comedian Eddie Large, best known for being half of British comedy duo Little And Large, has died after contracting coronavirus in hospital.