Coronavirus: Government target of 500,000 daily tests in jeopardy as new figures reveal shortfall

Samuel Lovett
 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The government has denied it is set to miss its target of 500,000 tests a day by the end of the month — despite figures showing it was reaching only 280,000 with little over a week to go.

As of Friday, Downing Street was 220,000 tests short of its ambitious October goal, while the UK’s testing capacity stood at 360,000.

This comes amid concerns that too few rapid test machines have been placed in hospitals, with a number of authorities said to have rejected the devices due to operational concerns.

But Downing Street has said it remains committed to the target, which was first set by health secretary Matt Hancock in July.

“The target still stands,” said the prime minister’s official spokesperson. “We’ve set out that it’s out intention to meet that figure by the end of the month.”

The Independent understands that his figure has been placed in jeopardy after a number of acute hospitals refused to accept rapid testing machines designed by Primerdesign, a Southampton-based diagnostic firm.

Last month, the company agreed to provide 300 high-tech PCR testing devices to NHS hospitals as part of the government’s plans for Operation Moonshot. Once delivered and installed, the machines will be able to process roughly 60,000 samples a day, with each test taking under 90 minutes to process.

At the time, one source said that the new devices “will make the difference” in hospital testing, allowing patients and staff to be quickly assessed prior to surgery or other procedures.

But hospitals from a range of trusts, including Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust, have warned that they do not have the necessary ancillary products or biomedical scientists needed to operate the machines, The Independent understands.

The Primerdesign device requires a ‘multi-pipette’ distillation process that sees patient swab samples placed from one solution to another by trained biomedical staff, before eventually being processed via the machine. Protective safety cabinets are also vital for preventing exposure and contamination.

Although England’s larger, university-based hospitals are well equipped with such resources, smaller sites have complained that they do not have the means to operate the Primerdesign machines.

The Independent understands that senior NHS figures have been calling up hospital directors in an attempt to pressure them into accepting the devices.

“There are certain hospitals which aren’t playing ball,” one source said.

The Department of Health and Social Care said that “only hospitals with the required workforce and supplies would be expected to take on new testing technologies”.

The machines are seen as an upgrade on the existing devices that are currently being placed in hospitals across England.

In August, the government announced that 5,000 DNA machines supplied by London-based health firm DnaNudge will provide 5.8 million tests in clinical settings over the winter period.

However, Primerdesign’s models offer a better throughput rate that will enable hospitals to process a higher number of daily tests.

Despite the placement disruption, the government is confident that it will be able to deliver 500,000 tests nationwide by the end of the month.

As part of the NHS Test and Trace network, there are currently five major laboratories in operation, along with 96 NHS labs, 258 mobile testing units, 77 regional test sites and 172 walk-through testing sites.

“NHS Test and Trace has been built from scratch into the biggest testing system per head of population of all the major countries in Europe,” the DHSC said.

“We continue to work tirelessly to make sure everyone who needs a test can get one, including by introducing new, reliable technology to deliver rapid results.”

The government has also moved to defend Baroness Dido Harding, head of Test and Trace, after the latest figures showed the programme slumped to a record low in the week ending 14 October, reaching just 59.6 per cent of close contacts of people infected with coronavirus.

Over the same timeframe, just 15.1 per cent of people who were tested for Covid-19 at a regional site, local site or mobile testing unit – a so-called in-person test – received their result within 24 hours, the data showed.

This was down from 32.8 per cent in the previous week, and is the lowest weekly percentage since test and trace began.

“The PM continues to have full confidence in Dido Harding,” Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said.

“NHS Test and Trace has built a testing capacity of over 360,000 a day from a starting point of 2,000 a day in March. That’s a bigger figure per head than France, Germany, Italy and Spain. 1.1 million people have been contacted and asked to self-isolate.

“But, as you’ve also heard the prime minister say, the system does need to improve, especially in terms of the turnaround times for tests and we expect that to happen.”

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