As we head towards the end of April, Downing Street has reportedly started to distance itself from a pledge the health secretary made at the start of the month to test 100,000 people a day for coronavirus.
Number 10, which did not pass comment initially when the target was set by Matt Hancock, insisted that the figure had not been agreed before he announced it to the media.
In a Telegraph article the anonymous source said there was not the demand to test NHS workers, and that testing of this level would only be needed at the start of the outbreak, and once the lockdown was lifted.
Three weeks after announcing the plan, and with Hancock only hitting 40% of his target, the Downing Street insider claimed the target was ‘arbitrary’ and ‘irrational’.
They said: ‘There is a faint irrationality behind it, just because there was a clamour for mass testing. Hancock’s 100,000 target was a response to criticism in the media, and he decided to crank out tests regardless.’
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They added: ‘Hancock’s not had a good crisis. The prime minister will say he has confidence in him, but it doesn’t feel like that. The 100,000 figure was Hancock’s idea – but he made that figure up.’
A senior scientific adviser to the government also questioned the target, saying: ‘The 100,000 figure is entirely arbitrary. Nobody knows why they are doing it, least of all the officials in DHSC [Department of Health and Social Care]. They are only doing it because Matt Hancock promised it.’
But a source close to Hancock insists the target was agreed by Downing Street, and that they are attempting to avoid responsibility to meet key tests set by themselves.
‘Anyone who thinks Matt just walked into a Number 10 press conference and came out with his own figure doesn’t have a clue how Government works. It was a Government target – it was arrived at by looking at what capacity there was in the NHS and the private sector and then setting an ambitious goal.
‘The aim at the time was to get key workers who were self-isolating back to work if they did not have the virus. That is still part of the goal, but as we move into the contact tracing and testing phase it will prove crucial in containing the virus and enabling us to ease some of the restrictions.’
They also point to Boris Johnson’s own comments in March which showed the intention to ramp up testing.
He said back then: ‘We’re massively increasing the testing to see whether you have it now and ramping up daily testing from 5,000 a day, to 10,000 to 25,000 and then up at 250,000.’
A Downing Street spokesman denied the newspaper reports, saying: ‘We agreed the figure before it was announced, and it remains a government target.’
The Daily Mirror visited testing centre locations around the UK and found them ‘eerily silent’.
At one facility for testing key workers and their families based at Chessington World of Adventures reporters witnessed ‘only idling staff’.