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Nobel Prize-winning biologist blasts Matt Hancock's 100,000 daily Covid tests target as a 'PR stunt'

Matt Hancock is facing questions about his 100,000-a-day testing target tonight amid claims the figures have been manipulated to get over the mark. 

The Health Secretary hailed success at the Downing Street briefing, revealing that there were 122,000 tests yesterday. ‘I can announce that we have met our goal,’ he said. 

However, it has emerged that the Department of Health is counting home tests kits that have been sent out – but not necessarily returned and processed.

According to the Health Service Journal, up to 50,000 of the tests due to be reported as having taken place on April 30 could have merely been mailed out.

The department insisted it has been clear on the way it is counting tests throughout.

But Boris Johnson told the Downing Street briefing last night that the figures covered tests ‘carried out’, rather than merely posted. Labour accused ministers of ‘moving the goalposts to hit their own arbitrary target’.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that a tweet sent from the No10 account earlier this month stated: ‘We’ll test 100,000 people a day by the end of this month.’

When Mr Hancock set the target he said he wanted 100,000 tests per day – but the number of people checked has always been significantly lower, as many need to be screened more than once for clinical reasons.  

Government sources said they believe the goal set by Matt Hancock (pictured in Downing Street today) will be achieved when the figures are officially announced this afternoon – although they stressed it could not be ‘taken for granted’

A worker gestures to someone arriving for a test at a centre in Wembley, London yesterday

A worker gestures to someone arriving for a test at a centre in Wembley, London yesterday

Boris Johnson told the Downing Street briefing last night that the figures covered tests 'carried out', rather than merely posted

Boris Johnson told the Downing Street briefing last night that the figures covered tests ‘carried out’, rather than merely posted








Boris Johnson will reveal lockdown exit plan on Thursday amid fears ‘coronaphobia’ will sabotage recovery 

Boris Johnson will unveil his ‘comprehensive’ lockdown exit plan next Thursday amid fears ‘coronaphobia’ could stop the country getting back up and running.  

Frantic work is under way in Whitehall on how businesses can resume activities, with every day on hold estimated to wipe around £2billion from GDP. 

Staff working every other week, wearing PPE in canteens, and face coverings on public transport are all being mooted to help reduce the risks.

But polling has suggested 61 per cent of Britons would be nervous about going out to bars and restaurants even if the draconian restrictions are loosened. 

The UK population appears to be among the most anxious in the world, with more than a quarter saying lockdown should not be eased even if the PM’s ‘five tests’ are met.

There are reports that some people who have returned to work have been getting abuse from neighbours who believe they are threatening their safety.

Ministers have admitted they must win over the public to a more ‘nuanced’ message, with advisers saying the stark ‘stay at home’ warning might have been too successful over the past six weeks. 

A source told HSJ that Mr Hancock was ‘obsessed’ with reaching the target – which has been dismissed as a PR stunt by some experts. 

‘They are trying every trick in the book,’ the source said. ‘They had to get the permanent secretary (Chris Wormald) to agree to a change in the counting process.

‘We’re now counting a home test as tests which have been sent to people’s homes.’

The DoH denied that there had been any change to the counting rules.

Notes added to the testing website yesterday state that the number of tests includes ‘tests processed through our labs’, but also ‘tests sent to individuals at home or to satellite testing locations’. 

The position seems to contrast with the PM’s words at the briefing last night, when he gave information about tests that have been ‘carried out’. 

Mr Johnson said: ‘901,905 tests for coronavirus have now been carried out in the UK, including 81,611 tests yesterday.’ 

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: ‘We want the Government’s test, isolate and trace strategy to succeed and welcomed expanding who was eligible to get a test, but counting a test put in the post is not the same as a conducted test and getting results.

‘Ministers should focus on making sure these tests are administered effectively rather than moving the goalposts to hit their own arbitrary target.

‘Government should urgently clarify its position at tonight’s press conference.’

Earlier, Health Select Committee chair Jeremy Hunt, one of the foremost critics of the testing regime, said Mr Hancock deserved credit for the ‘enormous achievement’.

However, Mr Hunt, a former health secretary himself, insisted it is now crucial to use the capacity to introduce South Korea-style mass screening. 

He said that would enable the lockdown to be ‘targeted’ on those who are infected rather than crippling the whole UK economy. 

The government is setting another target for having full-scale contact tracing in place by the end of the month – although previously ministers had indicated the hoped it would up and running by mid-May.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has added to the pressure by demanding a timetable for reaching Boris Johnson’s ambition of 250,000 tests a day, saying the UK also needs 50,000 contact tracers. 

In an interview with the Evening Standard, Sir Keir said the government had been ‘slow at every turn’. ‘Almost every country that has managed to get to the next stage has had testing and tracing as part of the strategy. The UK needs to do that too,’ he said.

‘That means hitting the 100,000 tests a day target, but then going further. The Prime Minister previously promised 250,000 tests a day. The Government’s advisers will know whether that is precisely the right target. But I do believe the Government should recommit to such an ambition.’ 

Meanwhile, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist has branded the Government’s target a ‘PR stunt’, saying the number had only been chosen because it ‘sounds good’. 

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of biomedical research centre the Francis Crick Institute, said on Question Time that the increase was welcome but the figure itself ‘makes absolutely no sense’. 

Figures published last night showed 81,611 tests were conducted on Wednesday, a major jump from 52,429 on Tuesday and 43,453 on Monday.

The significant jump gave renewed hope that Mr Hancock could possibly scrape past his self-imposed target, announced on April 2 when figures were running at around 10,000 a day.

Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think more than a pat on the back, it is an enormous achievement… it is an absolutely huge transformation of our testing capacity and Matt Hancock deserves enormous credit. 

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured earlier this month) said the increase in testing over the past month was an enormous achievement - but insisted it must be used properly

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured earlier this month) said the increase in testing over the past month was an enormous achievement – but insisted it must be used properly

‘Of course 100,000 is in some ways an arbitrary number but setting a target like that is how you get things done in a big bureaucracy like the NHS – it galvanises the system, It looks like that is what he’s done.’ 

He added: ‘The first thing they do which we now will be able to do at the right moment is be able to test not just for coronavirus cases in hospitals and care homes, but actually when people start going back to work to test them in the community.’

Mr Hunt went on: ‘That has meant that they are able to stop the virus in its track, so it’s much more targeted.

‘It’s locking down the people who have the virus or might have the virus, but not locking down the whole economy.’

David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on Covid-19, said it would be ‘perfectly reasonable’ for the UK to start easing the lockdown before a full contact tracing system is up and running.  

‘Every government is having to make a choice and I understand that the contact tracing process is now well advanced and so that’s a reasonable time to be thinking through how lockdown can be eased, and it won’t be eased all at once, it will be eased bit by bit,’ he told Today.

He added: ‘You don’t need to have 100 per cent contact tracing in order to get the R-number down. The contact tracing is an absolutely essential part of reducing transmission, and getting that capacity as widely spread as possible is key to getting the transmission as low as you can.

‘But you certainly can release the lockdown while you’re building up the case finding and contact tracing capacity – that’s what most other countries are doing.

‘They don’t wait until everything is ready and so it’s perfectly reasonable for Britain to be thinking through these options and working our how it’s going to do the next steps.’

Sir Paul said lives had been put at risk because NHS frontline workers were treating patients without being tested.  

‘The 100,000 target is just a figure with a lot of noughts in it. It was a bit of a PR stunt, which has gone a bit wrong. Why 100,000? Where was the strategy? It just sounded good,’ Sir Paul said. 

‘The reality is… If we had had local testing connected to hospitals, we could have made hospitals a safe place. But what we had was the potential for care workers on the words, working with sick patients, who were carrying the disease and weren’t being tested. 

‘They didn’t make the decision we want to test everybody who is a frontline worker and wouldn’t test anybody who had no symptoms. We know you can be infected but have no symptoms. This makes absolutely no sense. Testing was absolutely critical. It hasn’t been handled properly’.

Who is Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse? 

Chief executive Sir Paul Nurse pictured at the Francis Crick Institute in King's Cross

Chief executive Sir Paul Nurse pictured at the Francis Crick Institute in King’s Cross

Sir Paul Nurse was born in Norfolk and raised in London, where he attended Harrow County Grammar School. 

In 1970 he received a degree in biology at the University of Birmingham and a PhD in 1973 from the University of East Anglia.

He went on to spend several months in a laboratory in Bern, Switzerland, then moved on to the laboratory of Murdoch Mitchison at the University of Edinburgh for postdoctoral studies on the cell cycle.

In 1979 he set up his own laboratory at the University of Sussex then in 1984, he joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF, which became Cancer Research UK in 2002), leaving in 1988 to chair the Department of Microbiology at the University of Oxford.

Sir Paul’s contributions to cell biology and cancer research were recognised with a knighthood in 1999.

Sir Paul was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Leland Hartwell and Tim Hunt for their discoveries of protein molecules that control the division (duplication) of cells in the cell cycle.

In 2002 Sir Paul became Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK.

In 2003, Sir Paul became President of Rockefeller University in New York City where he continued to work on the cell cycle, cell form and genomics of fission yeast.

In 2010, he became the first Director and Chief Executive of the Francis Crick Institute in London and in addition for 5 years was President of the Royal Society.

When he was 57, Sir Paul discovered he had been raised by his grandmother, thinking she was his mother. 

He wrote in a blog, ‘I discovered my parents were not my parents’.

He found out after the US Department of Homeland Security rejecting his Green Card application on the grounds that the details given on his birth certificate were insufficient. 

He later learnt his mother had given birth at the age of 18 and his grandmother had raised him. 

Sources: NobelPrize.org,Crick.ac 

‘Even if we don’t hit it, and it’s probable that we won’t, we will in the next few days hit that target,’ Mr Buckland told Sky News.

‘I think it was right to set an ambitious target.

‘And you know, sometimes even if you don’t hit the target on the due date the direction of travel is the most im-portant thing.

‘I believe we’re going to get there and then move beyond it, because we need more.’

The number of tests completed was massively boosted by the expansion of eligibility to all key workers with coro-navirus symptoms last week and then again to all over-65s this Tuesday.

Previously only NHS and care staff and those sick in hospital had been eligible for tests.

The Department of Health carried out a major publicity drive on social media this week in a bid to get people to take up the offer of tests, which are available either delivered to homes or at drive-in centres.

Mr Hancock is said to have told his team this week that they had achieved their aims – even if they miss the target.

In a speech to civil servants this week, reported by Buzzfeed News, he said: ‘Whatever happens tomorrow, we’ve done what we needed to do – we’ve ramped up our testing capacity more than anyone believed we could, and given the UK the testing capacity it needs to beat this virus.’

Experts believe the huge expansion in testing is key to getting the country ready for a ‘contact tracing’ programme that will be key to avoiding a second wave of the virus when ministers eventually decide to lift lockdown measures.

Mr Hancock has asked that contact tracing is ready by the middle of May.

Officials are hiring 18,000 call centre staff to run the programme – which will trace every person exposed to the vi-rus over the coming weeks.

But testing is essential to such a programme – because every person with symptoms will have to test positive for the virus to trigger a labour-intensive contract tracing effort.

And anyone who is found to have been exposed to the initial patient will then also be tested, which will involve even more tests.

Mr Hancock pledged at the beginning of April to test 100,000 people by the end of the month.

When he made the pledge Britain was only testing 10,000 people a day.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said yesterday: ‘You can chart the progress that we’ve made towards hit-ting that target and that we are working hard today to ensure that people who need tests get them.’

But NHS Providers, which represents hospitals and ambulance trusts in England, described the target as a ‘red herring’ which has distracted attention from failings in the long-term Covid-19 strategy.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said as many as 120,000 tests would be needed daily for NHS workers once the UK comes out of lockdown, to stave off a second wave of the virus.

He said staff and patients would need to be tested regularly to control the spread of the virus once lockdown measures are eased.

With 800,000 people working for the NHS, Mr Hopson said there would need to be between 110,00 and 120,000 tests a day for them to be tested once a week.

He pointed to mass testing capabilities in Germany and South Korea, saying: ‘If you look at the international expe-rience, having the right testing regime is absolutely crucial in conquering this virus.

‘We are in a new phase, we are about to try and exit lockdown. If we are going to control the spread of the virus it’s really important we test all staff and patients regularly in healthcare settings.

‘What we are missing is we haven’t got the strategy in terms of what the next phase looks like.’

 

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