The Spectator

Matt Hancock: How we’ll get to 100,000 tests a day

Matt Hancock: How we'll get to 100,000 tests a day
Photo by Pippa Fowles via No.10 Downing Street
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The health secretary Matt Hancock spoke to BBC Radio 4's Today programme earlier this morning where he explained how he thought the government could reach his new target of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day. This is an edited transcript of that conversation: 

Mishal Husain How do we get from a testing level of 10,000 tests a day to 100,000 a day in England by the end of the month? That target, unveiled by the government yesterday, includes both swab tests, currently being used to diagnose whether people have the coronavirus, and the as yet unvalidated antibody test, which would identify those who have had it and which could therefore be a key part of adjusting the social distancing rules currently in place. The new target on testing comes as the number of deaths reached 2,921 in the UK. Cases of the infection around the world are now above a million. And Matt Hancock, the health secretary for England, is on the line now. Good morning, Mr Hancock. And you have yourself just recovered from the infection. What was your experience of it?

Matt Hancock Well, it was pretty worrying, especially on the way down, because you know how serious this infection can be. But after two days or so, which were pretty unpleasant, like having glass in your throat and a cough. Thankfully, I turned a corner and I've recovered. And it's great to be back. And having got through it.

Husain Do you regard yourself now as being immune?

Hancock Well, that's a very important scientific question. I took advice on that. And the advice is it's highly likely that I'm now immune or have a very high level of immunity, but it's not certain. And so like everybody else who's been through it, I am social distancing just like everybody else. We have a stream of work on the way for immunity and with potentially having immunity certificates so that if people have been through it and when the science is clear about the point at which they are then immune, that people can then start getting back to normal even more because they've been through it. One of the big challenges in this is to know how long immunity lasts for in a typical coronavirus, one of the six existing coronaviruses. Immunity lasts a minimum of a year and for some diseases can last up to a lifetime. But we don't know that yet because this disease is only four months old. It's impossible to know how long that will last. So that is a really, really important scientific question that we don't yet know the answer to.

On the detail of what you announced yesterday. The 100,000 tests a day that you want to happen in England by the end of this month, how many of the 100,000 do you envisage would be the antibody test, the blood test to see if people have had Covid-19?

Well, I think that the antibody tests, the blood test, at the moment, we haven't got a reliable home test. If we manage to get one, then that can be easily replicated and we can get into the into even higher figures, much higher.

But you have said that the 100,000 was across all the 'five pillars', which includes the antibody testing. So without it being proven, you have put it as part of this mix in 100,000?

Yes, but I'm not assuming any come on stream - that's pillar three, as we call it - in order to hit the 100,000 target. We have already 3,500 a week of antibody tests at Porton Down, and they are the top quality, the best test in the world. We're using those for research purposes to understand how much of the population has had coronavirus. This is one of the great unknown questions. But that's obviously a very small number, 500 or so a day.

Husain Therefore, it is possible we get to the end of the month and antibody testing is not part of the 100,000 at all. They might all be swab tests that the virus itself.

Hancock That's right. Other than the very small amount that are being used for research purposes, they're very important, but they will only make a small contribution to the overall number. And then within the swab tests, we're going to continue to expand the existing scheme within Public Health England and the NHS and bring private companies to bear to rapidly ramp up the amount of testing that they're doing. And you will have seen in some of the newspapers pictures of our new testing sites that we've been setting up this week. And I'm incredibly proud of the team who've put them together so quickly. And they are there. They're standing ready to expand from this weekend onwards.

Husain And the antibody tests are really important on many fronts, not least because it is hard, is it not, to imagine a route out of the lockdown without them being up and running?

Hancock Well, the antibody tests are important. The scientists say that they are more important later, as you say, as we're trying to come out of the extraordinary social distancing measures, the lockdown, because it's on the way out that you then know how many people have immunity. At the moment, the most important thing for getting out of this as quickly as possible is for people to follow the social distancing rules.

Husain Indeed. But could we safely come out of the lockdown or just the lockdown measures at all without this test being up and running?

Hancock It would be possible to do that, yes. But the more information you have from testing, the more accurately we'll be able to do that. But it would be incredibly helpful. It would allow us to understand far more, of course, understanding that from the surveillance testing from the Porton Down, the very, very high-end antibody testing, that will help us to do that. So we do have the capacity to be able to get the survey information that we need. But obviously it would be much better if we can get that to mass testing based on these home kits.

Husain We have spoken to someone working within the government's testing process who's disappointed with the progress that hundreds of tests and formulas have been sent in, 15 best candidates were selected out of 150. None of those tested have worked so far.

Hancock On the antibody test, that's right. We haven't yet found one that works. That works to be good enough to use. The thing is that, you know, I get pressure on this, I get people saying to me, 'Oh come on. It may not be perfectly accurate, but can't we use it?' The problem is that with a test that is not high quality, you end up giving false assurance. For instance, saying to somebody, 'we think you're immune because of this test result,' and they're not actually immune can be a really dangerous thing to do, because then they then you put themselves into harm's way.

Husain On these swab tests, the 100,000 a day, is it possible that all of those would be used for the NHS or how much do you envisage being community testing within that?

Hancock Well, in the first instance, the first call on them is for the patients, so they won't all be used for NHS staff. The first call is for patients whose treatment course may be different according to the results of the test, because that can be the difference between life and death. The next call is for critical staff, including largely in the NHS, of course. And we've now got to a position where 5,000 and it just staff have been tested. I hope to see that number ramp up very quickly. 

Husain Because a million and a half people work in the NHS.

Hancock That's right. And then there's social care and the prison service and the police. And so, you know, there's a whole series of critical workers who I want to get these tests to as fast as possible

Husain But on NHS testing, you would need to test people regularly, wouldn't you? They could be infected from one shift to the next. They could be infected on their journey home or their journey to work and therefore needed to be tested before they would come face to face with more patients.

Hancock Well, it would be good to be in a position to be able to do that. In the first instance, what I want to do is be able to test NHS staff, all their family members who are self-isolating so that they can either get back to work if it's a negative, which would be great, or know that they've got it so that they can both look after themselves and then also be able to get back to work once they've been through it. So the testing is in the first instance for patients, then it is for critical staff and their family members so that they can get back to the frontline after that, a broader range of key workers and then the community testing that you ask about.

Husain And what does your modelling now suggest about when the peak of cases is going to come?

Hancock Well, the modelling suggests that that peak will be slightly sooner than previously thought. In the next few weeks, but it is very, very sensitive to how many people follow the social distancing guidelines. So the real clarity I can give you, Mishal, is that the more people follow the social distancing rules, the sooner that peak will be. That is the only thing around this that we know for absolute sure. So everybody listening, stay at home because it protects the NHS, it saves lives and it will help us to get through this faster.

You have made this change in approach on testing, this ramping up, as we've heard from ministers - day after day of testing - this is a significant change of policy and people need to have ultimate confidence in the decisions of you, those around you, the prime minister, Public Health England, in order for them to trust you on this. And indeed to adhere to the social distancing guidelines knowing that it's all being done for a reason. I don't want to go back too much in the past, but do you look back and think, 'I wish that we hadn't gone... I wish we hadn't stepped away from wider testing at the point we did in the middle of March' or indeed 'I wished we'd done as Germany had done, and use our life sciences capability, use our private sector capability earlier on,' perhaps in the month of February or earlier in March?

Hancock No, because that's not what happened. The ramp up of testing has been ongoing throughout. And, you know, a month ago we were testing under 2,000 people a day. And I set out the commitment to get 10,000 tests a day by the end of March. And we hit that target. And now I've set out the new goal of 100,000 by the end of April. And so, yes, absolutely. This is a ramp up. Sure it is. But it is on the plan that we've been working through. 

So, you know, I constantly look to see what more we can do from now on in what are the extra things we can do. I mean, the honest truth on the pharmaceutical side and the testing is that I saw what happened with the ventilators when we got non-ventilator companies in to build the ventilators, side by side with the expert but small ventilator companies. 

Husain But the first batch is only 30, isn't it? 

Hancock Well, the first day there's 560 already been done and that will ramp up as well. So, you know, people will throw their rocks and make their criticisms. What we're trying to do in leading the nation through this is at every single moment work out what is the best we can do. And if people come forward with new ideas that we haven't thought of, great. And we will take them on. And my big call yesterday was to make that commitment, make the goal that we will get to 100,000 tests by the end of the month, and call out to the whole of the life sciences industry, the universities, all of the labs that we've got to play their part as well as the in-house capability. These companies had already been working incredibly closely with us, but we've brought more companies in. And I want the whole of the British life sciences industry to play their part in this national effort. And even if you haven't been a testing company before, you've got to become a testing company now.

Husain Secretary of state, thank you very much.