Government’s testing target branded a ‘publicity stunt’ as ministers accused of ‘changing the rules’

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock arrives in Downing Street. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock arrives in Downing Street. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The government has been accused of 'changing the rules' in how it counts the number of coronavirus tests carried out to help it hit the 100,000-a-day target for April.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing, health secretary Matt Hancock branded it an 'incredible achievement' as 122,347 tests were performed in the 24 hours up to 9am on Friday, including 40,000 which had been posted rather than completed.

But questions have been raised over how the tests have been counted, with changes in the last few days meaning newer home test kits have been counted as they are dispatched.

The overall total also includes tests dispatched to 'satellite testing locations' - such as hospitals that have a particularly urgent need - but does not detail whether the tests have actually been used.

When he set the target, Hancock said the UK 'will carry out' 100,000 tests every day by the end of April.

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Hancock's optimism that he would hit the target came after sources tried to disown the ambition in newspapers a week before.

Guidance on the government website appears to have changed on April 28 to include wording saying home tests and satellite tests were being included, as Hancock sent frantic e-mails to mailing lists urging people to order a kit.

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A source told the HSJ: 'They are trying every trick in the book'.

The government's national testing co-ordinator, Professor John Newton, told reporters there had been 'no change' to the methodology but said advice had been sought on counting as 'new ways of delivering tests' were brought in.

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He said: 'There has been no change to the way that tests are counted.

'As we've developed new ways of delivering tests we've taken advice from officials as to how this should be counted.

'So, the tests that are within the control of the programme, which is the great majority, are counted when the tests are undertaken in our laboratories.

'But any test which goes outside the control of the programme, they're counted when they leave the programme, so that is the tests that are mailed out to people at home and the tests which go out in the satellite.

'So that is the way they are counted, have always been counted, and the way we were advised to count them by officials.'

He said some 27,497 kits sent out to homes were included in the total alongside 12,872 tests delivered to satellite locations.

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of biomedical research centre the Francis Crick Institute, had previously labelled the government's target 'a PR stunt'.

Speaking on BBC Question Time the bioscientist said: 'It was, as far as I'm concerned, a bit of a PR stunt which has gone a bit wrong.

'Where was the strategy under that? I haven't seen a strategy under it. It just sounded good.'

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: 'Labour has repeatedly called for more testing, and increasing testing is an important milestone.

'But many would have expected the 100,000 promise to have been met by actually carrying out testing, not simply because 39,000 kits had been mailed out.

'The headline figure shouldn't count tests that hadn't been used, or indeed, might never be used as a completed test.

'Ministers promised transparency - the public and NHS staff deserve clarity.'

Liberal Democrat acting leader Sir Ed Davey said: 'The health secretary's arbitrary target of 100,000 tests by the end of April was always a hostage to fortune, and the truth is, he missed it.

'It's extremely disappointing the government have decided to massage the metrics rather than admit they fell short, as this will only undermine public confidence.'

It comes as 27,510 people have now died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Thursday, up by 739 on the day before.

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