Dido Harding, the head of the NHS test-and-trace programme and the newly created National Institute for Health Protection, has told parliament’s science and technology committee that demand for coronavirus tests across England is three to four times higher than capacity.
The total capacity is now 242,817 tests: 82,817 in the NHS and Public Health England (known as pillar 1) and 160,000 in the community (pillar 2). The numbers have not been published since 10 September, but Lady Harding said they would now be published every day.
She said a quarter of those seeking tests did not have symptoms. Surveys outside the testing centres found that 27% of people turning up did not have symptoms.
Harding said there was “significantly more demand than capacity”. Officials were estimating demand from the number of people calling 119 and the number of visitors to the website, she told MPs. They are “three to four times the number of tests we currently have available, but there will be some double counting in that”.
Some people would be making multiple calls from mobiles and landlines, she said, but the demand was “multiples of the total test capacity we have today”.
People who book a test must declare that they have at least one symptom. Asked by Greg Clark, the chair of the committee, whether she was saying that 27% were lying, she said that those who arrived on foot at a local centre without an appointment had not made such a claim.
Harding said only a third of people attending walk-in test centres were getting their test results in 24 hours. The latest test-and-trace report shows the picture is even worse overall, with just 14% of all tests delivering a result in under 24 hours in the week to 9 September, down from 32% a week earlier.
She said it had been decided to increase the number of tests by slowing down the response rate. “I strongly refute that the system is failing,” she said, adding: “We made a conscious decision because of the large increase in demand to extend the turnaround time in order to process the number of tests in the last couple of weeks.”
The sudden increase in demand had not been anticipated, she said, even though capacity had been increased in anticipation of schools reopening. “We’ve seen a very marked increase in the number of young children coming forward to be tested. So, a doubling of the number of children under 17 coming forward to be tested. And more than that in the ages of five to nine,” she said.
It was not true that there had been a failure to increase capacity in the summer, when there was less demand, she said. “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,” she said.
“Not only are we getting the pandemic under control, with deaths down and hospital admissions way, way down, but we will continue to tackle it, with local lockdowns and with our superlative test-and-trace system.”
“NHS Test and Trace is doing a heroic job, and today most people get an in-person test result within 24 hours, and the median journey is under 10 miles if someone has to take a journey to get one … [To Keir Starmer] We make the tough calls – all he does is sit on the sidelines and carp.”
[On the ‘moonshot’ proposal for mass, near-instant testing:] “We are hopeful this approach will be widespread by the spring and, if everything comes together, it may be possible even for challenging sectors like theatres to have life much closer to normal before Christmas.”
“We don’t have enough testing capacity now because, in an ideal world, I would like to test absolutely everybody that wants a test immediately … Yes, there’s a long way to go, and we will work night and day to ensure that we get there.”
“Of course there is a challenge in testing … We have sent tests to all schools to make sure that they have tests available. But of course I also recognise the challenges in getting hold of tests … Tests are available, even though it is a challenge to get hold of them.”
It was necessary to prioritise those people who needed tests most, she said. The first priority was NHS patients and NHS and social care staff, who made up about 50% of the tests. After that were outbreak areas such as Bolton, where two to three times more tests were being carried out than in other areas of England.
London was being allocated fewer tests. “Over the last few weeks London has seen the absolute number of tests allocated come down, precisely because London has a lower prevalence than Bolton and other areas in the north-west, and now in the north-east,” she said.
Existing laboratories were running at near capacity and sometimes more than capacity, she said. “For a couple of days in the last week, our laboratories have run at over 100% capacity, which we’re very concerned about,” she said.
The Milton Keynes Lighthouse lab had to process 30,000 tests a day, which meant unpacking 30,000 swab packages safely and safeguarding the data of the people tested. The labs were bringing onboard more robots that could unpack the test samples and process them quickly and without hazard, she said.
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