A key government adviser said he warned Boris Johnson not to describe his coronavirus mass testing plan as moonlight and warned against setting a target of 10 million tests per day.
As ministers faced further criticism of the struggling testing program, Sir John Bell said the government had underestimated demand for testing caused by the return of schools and an increase in infections.
Bell, a regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford who oversaw the government’s antibody testing program, told the BBC Radio 4s Today program: I think what’s wrong is wave two.
A month ago they had spare capacity to test significant spare capacity, but I think what was underestimated was the speed at which the second wave would arrive, but also the pressure on the system by children returning to school, and the testing requirements associated with that, and more and more people on the move.
So I think they’re definitely overdue in getting the tests needed for what we need today.
Some people living in areas with the highest infection rates in England were unable to book a test on Monday due to a long delay in laboratories.
The Guardian attempted to book a test in Bolton, England’s worst affected region, on Tuesday morning and were told none were available. A message on the government website read: This service is currently very busy. More tests should be available later. If you can’t book a test now, or if the location or time is not convenient for you, try again in a few hours.
The government said it was increasing testing capacity to a target of 500,000 per day by the end of October and prioritizing areas with the highest infection rates.
Bell told BBC Radio 4s Today that prime ministers aim to test millions of people a day in rapid tests. A report published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) says the UK has plans to potentially perform up to 10 million Covid-19 tests per day early next year.
Bell said: Let’s go back to 10m per day, adding: It will be 2 or 3 million I think, first.
When asked if he had advised the Prime Minister not to use the word moonshot, Bell replied: Well, I remember the Space Shuttle Challenger. So there are several ways to make moonshots. Apollo 13 (sic) was great, Challenger was not that great. Pressed again, Bell said: That’s right. Yeah, I probably did.
Bell said there will be a significant increase in testing capacity over the next two weeks, but the situation will worsen due to the winter bugs. The demand will increase. The real question is whether they can get an offer in a position where it can exceed demand, and that is the challenge right now, he said.
An internal research of the struggling NHS testing and tracing system indicates that around one in four people booking a test are not eligible. However, ministers’ messages are mixed.
In July, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of Health, urged people to get tested when in doubt whether or not they have symptoms. Twelve days ago, he said the goal was to conduct weekly community testing of the general population.
But over the past week, people without symptoms have been told they are not eligible for testing, and walk-in centers, even in worst-affected areas, have limited testing to people with pre-booked appointments.
Professor Alan McNally, an infectious disease expert who helped set up the government Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab, said there were clearly underlying issues that no one wants to tell us about behind the dearth of available tests.
McNally said there had been an increase in demand and the capacity declared by the UK was significantly different from the number that could be handled. It had contributed, he said, to a perfect storm of events that came together to practically crush the test system.
He added: It’s very disturbing that we seem to be in a situation before we really get to the fall and winter where we’ve maximized the number of tests we can do in the country, and that’s very worrying.