Up to three quarters of a million Covid test requests are going unanswered every day because of an “unexpected” surge in demand when schools returned, the head of NHS Test and Trace has suggested.
Baroness Dido Harding revealed that the online and phone applications for tests was “three to four times the number of tests we currently have available”, which she revealed was now 242,000 tests a day.
During a grilling by MPs, the Tory peer said that the current demand was “multiples of the test capacity we have today”, even if double counting was stripped out from people calling several times.
But Harding faced criticism when she said that the big jump in phone calls and online requests for tests had not been anticipated by “anybody” – despite schools reopening in September and the government urging people back to the office.
And in evidence to the Commons science and technology committee, both she and health minister Lord Bethell said that the virus was spreading because too many of the public were not following the rules on 14 day self-isolation.
Harding said people were breaking quarantine to “pop to the shops” and Bethell suggested that some of the public viewed getting a test as a “cure” or as “a way out of your commitment to isolate”.
After a week when no capacity figures were published by the government, the NHS Test and Trace chief revealed that the total daily UK Covid test capacity is now 242,817, with 82,817 done in the NHS and 160,000 done in mobile testing centres and other sites.
She revealed that the number of children under 17 asking for tests had doubled in recent weeks, and by an even greater rate for children aged between five and nine, but said many didn’t need tests.
Committee chairman Greg Clark told her: “It is dispiriting to find that we are now in September, in circumstances which are entirely predictable – people are going back to school, people are going back to work – and we haven’t had the right capacity put in place during the quieter times of June, July and August.”
Harding replied: “I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand that we’ve seen over the course of the last few weeks. In none of the modelling was that expected. We built our capacity plans based on Sage [government scientific advisers] modelling.”
Harding also said that the demand was coming in part from people without symptoms who wanted to avoid having to self-isolate.
She continued: “We see quite a lot of people coming forward who don’t have symptoms who – and I really understand why they would feel like this – who want to believe that if they get a test, they won’t need to self isolate, that if one of their family members, has tested positive that if they get a test they won’t have to isolate with them. And sadly that isn’t how the virus works and isn’t the medical guidance.”
She added that people were not sticking to the 14-day isolation required either. “They either have caring responsibilities, or they feel they need to pop out to grab something from a shop or they just want some fresh air. A meaningful percentage of people find it hard to stick to that self-isolation during the full 14 days.”
Sitting alongside her, Lord Bethell said: “We have to be really clear with people about the way in which this infection works, and the way it harbours in the body, because there is a temptation to believe that having a test somehow is a cure, or if not a cure is a way out of your commitment to isolate.
“And the test and trace programme really only is effective if people do isolate, if they have tested positive or if they’ve been in contact with people who have tested positive.”
Harding said that one big reason for the demand was people wrongly applying for a test even if they lacked symptoms.
She said that a survey of 24,000 people at 25 regional and local testing sites in early September found 27% of people said they were there because they’d been in contact with someone who had tested positive, “but they didn’t have symptoms themselves”.
NHS Test and Trace figures issued on Thursday revealed a dramatic fall in the number of tests completed within Boris Johnson’s 24-hour deadline, with just a third of in-person tests meeting that target – down by half in just a week.
Harding admitted for the first time that the delays were deliberate as the system struggled to get more tests started but not completed.
“I strongly refute that the system is failing. We made a conscious decision because of the huge increase in demand to extend the turnaround times in order to process more tests, over the course of the last couple of weeks,” she said.
Harding also all but confirmed that health secretary Matt Hancock had handed her the new post of interim chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection, without any competition.
“I didn’t apply to do the job I’m doing at the moment, I was asked to serve by ministers. I suspect like everybody working on the Covid response, I felt it was the appropriate thing to do to serve my country and say yes to that request.
“While I am not a clinician, and only have three years experience [in health], I do understand the NHS, and the public sector to couple with my logistics, retail and technology experience.”
The peer stressed that NHS Test and Trace had increased the UK’s testing capacity from the low thousands months ago to being “on track” to the PM’s aim of 500,000 daily tests by the end of October.
“At the end of May, we had 128,000 tests a day capacity. Today we have 242,000, so it’s not been a quiet summer for NHS Test and Trace at all. We’ve doubled the size of our testing capacity which is exactly what we committed to do. And we’re on track to double it again to 500,000 tests, a day by the end of October.”
Amid growing questions over the commercial contracts to firms running parts of the scheme, Harding said “I can’t confirm or deny” whether private firm Randox had charged the taxpayer for test swabs that were ‘voided’ in August.