The Health Secretary has claimed the UK is now a world leader in testing for Covid-19, as he conceded that capacity for checks has needed to be built up “almost from scratch” since the start of the outbreak.
Matt Hancock admitted that it would have been “wonderful” to have a diagnostics industry like Germany to tackle the coronavirus crisis – but insisted the UK has now caught up with the Germans in terms of testing.
It came after Security Minister James Brokenshire said “capacity constraints” meant widespread checks in the community were scrapped in mid-March.
Appearing on Sky News on Wednesday, Mr Hancock acknowledged that a lack of capacity meant it had not been possible to test everyone leaving hospital before they went into a care home.
When asked whether these tests should have been introduced earlier, he said: “The problem was that the testing didn’t exist and we had to build that testing capacity.”
The Health Secretary said ministers had put “a huge amount of effort and resources” into supporting care homes during the pandemic.
But he added: “It would have been wonderful if we had gone into this crisis with a global-scale diagnostics industry, in the way that Germany did.
“But we went in more like other countries like France, which similarly have had to build testing capability almost from scratch.”
Mr Hancock claimed that Britain is “miles ahead” and now a world leader when it came to testing for the virus.
“We invented the test in January. In February we got the number of tests up to 2,000 (a day). In March we multiplied that by five times to 10,000. Then we set the 100,000 target,” he told Sky News.
“The Germans started with this enormous diagnostics industry. But if you look at other countries around the world we are miles ahead on testing and we are now one of the world leaders.
“It is true that Germany has a very high capacity – about the same as ours. So we have basically caught up with Germany that started with this massive capability.
“We are miles ahead of South Korea now. Absolutely.”
The Government has worked to ramp up testing, but again failed to meet the daily target of 100,000 – with 84,806 tests carried out on Monday.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Brokenshire told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that widespread community testing was halted due to a lack of capacity.
England’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee on Tuesday that it would have been “beneficial” if testing capacity had been ramped up more quickly.
“We’ve always been informed by the expert advice around this,” Mr Brokenshire said.
“There was a shift in terms of how testing was done – we’ve already heard of some of the issues of overall capacity at that point in time and some of the evidence that Patrick Vallance, our chief scientific officer, has given.”
Asked whether, had there been the capacity, track-and-tracing should have continued, the Home Office minister said: “Would there have been benefit in having that extra capacity, as Patrick Vallance highlighted yesterday? Yes.
“The challenge that we had is that we have some fantastic laboratories, some fantastic expertise, but it has been the capacity constraints that we have had, and therefore how that posed challenges.”
Ministers abandoned widespread testing and contact tracing on March 12 as the virus spread beyond control in the community.
On Tuesday, Sir Patrick told MPs a greater ability to carry out testing would have improved the UK’s response to the pandemic.
He told the committee: “I think that probably we, in the early phases, and I’ve said this before, I think if we’d managed to ramp up testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial.”
At the same committee, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, said limited resources meant a balance had to be struck at the time.
But she added that “if we had unlimited capacity, and the ongoing support beyond that, then we perhaps would choose a slightly different approach”.