Matt Hancock today vowed to bring in population-wide mass coronavirus testing – but failed to offer a time frame and referred to the project as a ‘moonshot’.
The Health Secretary told the BBC’s Today programme that the government would bring in mass testing and ministers were working as ‘fast as we can’ on the scheme that is crucial for a further return to normality.
His pledge follows months of calls from top experts and politicians to set-up a mass-testing programme. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair warned it was the only way to prevent a second wave.
But Mr Hancock was vague on details when he revealed the government was trialling new tests, saying some give results in just 10 minutes and rely on saliva — cutting out the need to have long swabs stuck down throats. Current tests can take several days to produce results because they need to be sent to laboratories.
Around 100,000 people are being tested for coronavirus each day — but academics have warned it needs to be scaled-up massively to cope with the coughs and colds that will arise this winter.
Mass-testing allows ministers to see exactly where outbreaks are and stops infected people unknowingly spreading it. Rapid coronavirus tests could also mean travellers do not need to quarantine for the full two weeks, if they come back negative.
Mr Hancock also defended the government’s controversial choice to install Tory peer Baroness Dido Harding as the head of the new agency replacing Public Health England.
Experts said it made as ‘much sense as Chris Whitty [England’s chief medical officer] being appointed a head of Vodafone’. Baroness Harding is the former chief executive of TalkTalk, where she oversaw one of the worst data breaches in the UK.
But Mr Hancock told BBC News Baroness Harding — whose husband is a Tory MP — was ‘simply the best person who could be doing this job now’, claiming Number 10 is ‘very lucky’ to have her in the role.
And he denied the decision to scrap the beleaguered PHE would be a distraction in the fight against the pandemic. He added the reorganisation was ‘absolutely the best thing to do’.
The Health Secretary said it was an ‘incredibly important’ project, claiming ministers were working as ‘fast as we can’ to achieve the ‘moonshot’ and reopen parts of the economy
Chain of command: Baroness Dido Harding will report directly to the health secretary after her appointment as interim chief of the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP)
Baroness Harding’s husband, Tory MP John Penrose, is a board member of the think tank ‘182’ which has published several reports calling for PHE to be abolished
FACT BOX TITLE
Testing everyone for coronavirus every week could drive out the coronavirus without a second wave or another lockdown, according to scientists.
Researchers led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said routine testing, contact tracing and household isolation could stop Covid-19 ‘quite quickly’.
In their study in June, they said Britain should do a single-city trial of the system to see whether it could bring down new infections and deaths faster than the current situation.
Applied nationwide, the policy would require 10million tests to be done every day – there are currently an average of 166,000 – and it could cost £1billion per month.
The idea has been dismissed in the past because people didn’t think that level of testing was feasible, the scientists said, but they argue there are ways to do it with basic saliva testing that can be carried out without expert lab staff.
It may be difficult to convince everyone in the UK to sign up to the invasive nasal swab testing, which people say makes them gag or suffer nosebleeds, but saliva testing is being trialled by the Government and could even be more accurate, the scientists said.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 today, Mr Hancock said mass-testing was a ‘really, really important drive that we have across government’.
He added: ‘At the moment, you have to send off a test to a laboratory, get it back and all the logistics of that takes time. It is also quite expensive.
‘There are new technologies coming on track which we are eyeing and testing now.’
Mr Hancock added: ‘Some of them [the tests] you only have to use saliva rather than having a swab all the way down the back of your throat, which means that anybody can administer it or self administer it much easier.
‘Some of them they don’t need a lab on the test which means you don’t have to send it off and get it back — with the best ones you get the results in 10 minutes.’
When asked about when it would be available, he refused to answer and replied: ‘I am not going to put a firm deadline on it.’
He added: ‘I have said very clearly that we are ramping it up over the remainder of this year.
‘The answer is we are going as fast as we can, working with dozens of companies, both home grown and international to get the very best testing capacity.
‘This moon shot to have testing ubiquitous and available to reopen all sorts of things, to reduce the burden of the quarantine arrangements which nobody wants to have in place, to allow us to reopen parts of the economy, that is an incredibly important project within Government right now.’
Mr Hancock also defended the timing of axing Public Health England to form a new National Institute for Health Protection.
He told Sky News: ‘My responsibility is to make sure that the pandemic response is the best it possibly can be and that’s why I’ve taken this decision now.
Britain’s new covid queen who will lead test and trace scheme: Baroness Dido is Tory MP’s wife who was raised on a pig farm (and thinks there is too much maternity leave)
The former chief executive of TalkTalk, who was at the helm of the company when it was hit by an £80 million cyber attack in 2015, will lead the UK’s test and trace scheme to tackle the coronavirus, set to launch tomorrow.
Baroness Dido Harding of Winscombe, 53, was raised on a Somerset pig farm and is the granddaughter of Field Marshall Lord Harding, the commander of the Desert Rats who became the most senior soldier in the British army.
A former jockey, she studied Policy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, alongside David Cameron, and is the wife of John Penrose, the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare.
Upon graduating, she held a slew of roles at Thomas Cook, Woolworths, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
Baroness Harding was appointed CEO of TalkTalk in 2010, serving in the role for seven years, during which the company was the victim of a cyber attack that saw the personal and banking details of 157,000 customers accessed by hackers.
She was subjected to repeated blackmail attempts after the hack, with demands for Bitcoins in exchange for stolen data, which included customers’ names, email addresses, mobile numbers, home addresses and dates of birth.
In the aftermath, TalkTalk was fined a record £400,000 for security failings which allowed the data to be accessed ‘with ease’ in one of the biggest data breaches in history.
TalkTalk is thought to have lost £60million from the fallout with an estimated 100,000 angry customers leaving, mainly to BT, while 2015 profits halved to £14million and shares lost nearly two-thirds of their value.
Baroness Harding faced repeated calls to step down over the breach, but stayed on until 2017, when she resigned to focus on her ‘public service activities’.
Later that year, she was appointed chair of NHS Improvement, responsible for overseeing all NHS hospitals.
A powerful figure, she refuses to believe her gender has ever held her back, nor will she endorse female quotas on company boards, which she sees as political meddling.
She also thinks that workers have too much maternity leave, despite admitting being the boss has allowed her to successfully juggle her own career with spending time with the two daughters she has with her husband.
She said in a 2015 interview: ‘I have an enormously privileged position.
‘I make a lot of money – a matter of public record – I have a huge amount of help, and I’m more in control of the day and what I do than someone working shifts on the checkout, or running the produce department in a supermarket.’
Baroness Harding has also packed in a career as a jockey, which saw her appear at Cheltenham, Ascot and even the towering Grand National jumps at Aintree.
One particularly nasty crash over the sticks at Larkhill left her strapped to a spinal board – though she still managed to catch a flight to a conference in Thailand the next day.
But, aged 24, she made a rash promise to her husband – she would give it all up at 40.
When the date came Penrose, who had not forgotten, made it clear breaching the bargain was a deal-breaker for the marriage. Harding obliged, though does still race without jumps.
‘Actually one of the lessons from the crisis I think for me is that if something is the right thing to do then delaying doing it is the wrong thing.
‘We’ve now got Public Health England, NHS Test and Trace, we’ve got a new Joint Biosecurity Centre, working separately so in order to keep people safe, in order to have the very best response, we need to bring these organisations together now.
‘I hope this gives a long-term future for all those working on the pandemic response.’
And he defended the decision to install Tory peer Dido Harding as the head of the new NIHP.
Baroness Harding, who was made a peer by David Cameron, was appointed despite her recent track record in charge of the government’s disastrous contact tracing scheme and mobile app that was delayed for months amid bungles over technology.
Her husband, Tory MP John Penrose, is also board member of the think tank ‘1828’ which has published several reports calling for PHE to be abolished.
Mr Hancock rejected allegations of ‘cronyism’, telling Times Radio: ‘I ask people to do these important, big jobs who I think are best qualified to do it.’
Asked if she is qualified for the role, he told BBC News: ‘Absolutely, she’s simply the best person who could be doing this job now.
‘She has enormous experience both in the private sector running very large organisations and this is a very large organisation now with a budget of over £10billion.
‘Also in the NHS she’s been the chair of NHS Improvement for the last over three years, she’s been expanding and building that testing capacity, the test and trace system that is so effective in finding people now and asking them to self-isolate.’
He added: ‘So we’re very lucky to have her giving this public service at this critical time.’
In an interview with LBC this morning, Mr Hancock said: ‘Anybody with enormous experience like Baroness Harding will have had to face challenges in their professional career.
‘I think having somebody with enormous experience, both running very large organisations in the private sector and as the chair of the board of NHS Improvement last three-and-a-half years, she has what it takes to lead this organisation, to get it set up.
‘The key thing now is to make sure that there is a seamless impact on the coronavirus response, actually that that is strengthened, and I think her leadership will be an important part in that.’
He added: ‘Ultimately it is ministers who are responsible for all decisions that governments make. That’s why I come on the radio to talk to you and answer questions, and am accountable in Parliament.
‘The whole media discussion around this about ‘who is responsible?’ I think is frustrating because frankly I am responsible for what happens in the health and social care areas. Of course I am.’
Mr Hancock has faced scathing criticism after he axed PHE. Experts accused the Government of using PHE as a scapegoat.
The remains of PHE will be subsumed into the NIHP’s single command structure, which will also involve the Joint Biosecurity Centre — an agency created in May and ran out of the Cabinet Office.
Mr Hancock said the institute, which began work yesterday and reports directly into him, would have a ‘single and relentless mission: protecting people from external threats to this country’s health like biological weapons, pandemics and infectious diseases of all kinds.’
Mr Hancock said that the formation of the NIHP gave the UK ‘the best chance of beating this virus and spotting and tackling other external health threats now and in the future.’
PHE has been blamed for a litany of errors in the UK’s Covid-19 response, including miscounting thousands of virus deaths and failing to ramp up testing capacity quick enough.
Local public health directors have also criticised the beleaguered Government agency for refusing to share regional infection data, with one describing the body as ‘an obstructive pain in the a**’.
PUBLIC HEALTH ENGLAND’s CORONAVIRUS FAILINGS
Public Health England has come under fire for a number of its responses to the Covid-19 crisis.
Its directors have tried to divert blame, claiming that major decisions are taken by Government ministers in the Department of Health, but the body has been accused of being controlling.
These are some of the failures for which PHE has been blamed:
Stopping mass testing and tracing
On March 12 the Government announced it would no longer test everybody who was thought to have coronavirus, and it would stop tracking the contacts of the majority of cases to try and stop the spread of the disease.
As a result, Britain effectively stopped tracking the virus and it was allowed to spiral out of control.
Conservative MP David Davis said that was ‘precisely the wrong thing to do’.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE’s medical director, told MPs in May: ‘It was a decision that was come to because of the sheer scale of cases in the UK.’
She added: ‘We knew that if this epidemic continued to increase we would certainly need more capacity.’
PHE said: ‘Widespread contact tracing was stopped because increased community transmission meant it was no longer the most useful strategy.’
Counting deaths inaccurately
It emerged last month that Public Health England had been counting coronavirus deaths by checking a list of people who had ever tested positive to see if they were still alive.
The cause of someone’s death, nor how long it had been since their positive test result, were not taken into account and the agency was accused of ‘over-exaggerating’ the numbers of people who were dying each day.
An investigation into the method by the Department of Health saw 5,000 deaths wiped from the UK’s official tally.
The statistical flaw was uncovered by Oxford University’s Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia.
Matt Hancock has since brought the figures in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland, which only attribute deaths to Covid-19 if it occurs within a month of their diagnosis.
Lack of contact tracing capacity
Papers published by Government scientists on SAGE revealed that PHE only had the capacity to cope with five new cases a week on February 18.
Only nine cases had been diagnosed at the time.
PHE experts said modelling suggested capacity could increased ten-fold to 50 new cases a week — allowing them to contact 8,000 people a day.
SAGE said: ‘When there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful.’
Britain’s cases jumped started to jump by 50 each day at the beginning of March.
Pledged antibody tests in March
PHE’s Professor Sharon Peacock said on March 25 that the UK was on course to have antibody tests available to the public that month.
She confirmed the Government had bought 3.5million of the tests and was evaluating their quality.
They could be available to the public ‘within days’, she said at a Downing Street briefing.
Three months later, however, and they are still not a reality. Officials have since decided there are no tests good enough available, and there is no proof that the results will be of any use to the public.
Testing efforts slowed by ‘centralised’ lab approach
Scientists in private labs, universities and research institutes across the country said in April that their offers to help with coronavirus testing had fallen on deaf ears.
Only eight PHE laboratories and some in NHS hospitals were being used to analyse tests during the start of the crisis.
‘Little ship’ labs had tools to process tests and could have increased testing capacity rapidly if officials had agreed to work with them, they said.
But it took Britain until the end of April to manage more than 100,000 tests in a day. Germany had been managing the feat for weeks by utilising private laboratories.
PHE says it did not ‘constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing for Covid-19’.
It claimed that it requested officials changed testing methods in January to allow for any testing facility to conduct diagnostic tests.