Government quietly wipes 1.3m coronavirus tests from England tally because of double-counting

Health secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street on NHS test and trace. Photo

Health secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street on NHS test and trace. Photograph: Downing Street/PA. - Credit: PA

The government has quietly removed more than 1.3 million coronavirus tests from its England tally because of over counting, raising fresh concerns over the accuracy of testing figures.

On Wednesday, the government announced it had lowered the number of 'available tests' by 10% and then dropped the metric altogether.

An update on the Department of Health and Social Care's (DHSC) website said 'an adjustment' of 1,308,071 tests had been made.

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'The adjustments have been made as a result of more accurate data collection and reporting processes recently being adopted within pillar 2,' the notice read.

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Pillar 2 tests involve all testing done outside hospitals through private companies, which includes swab tests at satellite testing centres, care homes, and home swab testing kits delivered by post.

The DHSC said the changes would affect data collected between May 14 and August 12 after officials noticed that fewer in-person pillar 2 tests had been undertake than originally reported during that time period while more tests had been sent to NHS trusts and care homes.

The problem was acknowledged by the DHSC on July 6 but the tests were not removed from the data until 12 August.

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said the data on testing had been 'shambolic' for months.

'To now retrospectively adjust the testing figures by 1.3m overnight – without explanation – is the latest in a long line of chaotic failings by the government on testing,' he said.

'How can we be confident that testing and tracing is working properly when basic data on the number of tests is obviously so flawed? Ministers need to get a grip of this as a matter of urgency.'

This is not the first time the government has been accused of misleading the public over testing figures.

In April, the health secretary's claim that 100,000 tests were being carried out daily was questioned after it emerged the fiure included mail-out tests which had yet been sent back for analysis.

The Liberal Democrat health, wellbeing and social care spokesperson, Munira Wilson, said: 'With so many families torn apart by this pandemic, the government must recognise the fall in public trust in their handling of the crisis.

'To avoid questions of fiddling the numbers, they must be explicitly transparent in how they have changed the data and how they will rapidly build testing capacity.

'Ultimately, we need an immediate independent inquiry so lessons can be learned more systematically.'

The revised figures comes as 750,000 unused tests were recalled from care homes and individuals by diagnostics company Randox over safety concerns.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency ordered the recall and instructed care homes to stop using them immediately in mid-July amid concerns over their sterility.

Allyson Pollock, a clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University, said: 'The government needs to make clear what they mean by an adjustment and why the change has taken place. There are also big questions that should be asked about the Randox contract, and the one with Deloitte is still not published, we should really press for that.'

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'In July we became aware of an overcounting issue which we publicly and transparently acknowledged and have since sought to clarify these figures subsequently.

'This does not change the fact that we have rapidly built, from scratch, the largest diagnostic testing industry in British history, with over 13 million tests delivered, and capacity to test 300,000 every day.'

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