The UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, has been accused of blaming the public for the mounting problems with access to Covid-19 tests after he claimed that a quarter of those coming forward for checks were ineligible because they were asymptomatic.
Hancock has spearheaded efforts to expand testing, urging people to get checked if they have symptoms or “have any doubt”.
But with Downing Street under growing pressure over concerns that some people have had to travel long distances to access tests, Hancock suggested asymptomatic people coming forward for tests were behind the growing demand.
Hancock said there were a record number of tests available, claiming capacity was higher than ever. “However, we have seen a rise in the number of people who are not eligible for a test coming forward and getting those tests,” he told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday.
“If you don’t have symptoms, unless you’ve been asked specifically by a clinician or a local authority to go and get a test, you’re not eligible for a test. But we want the tests to be available for people with symptoms.”
When asked how many people were having a test when they did not need one, Hancock replied: “About 25% of the people who come forward, we estimate, are not eligible for a test.”
On 21 July, Hancock tweeted a video of himself speaking in the Commons about the issue, adding the message: “If you have symptoms of #coronavirus, or if you have any doubt, get a coronavirus test. Anybody who needs a test can get a test, & it’s the most important thing that you can do to stop the spread of this virus.”
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “It beggars belief that after weeks of encouraging people to have a test if feeling unwell, ministers are seeking to blame people for simply doing what they were advised.
“With children returning to school and thousands returning to the office, it’s obvious extra testing capacity would be needed. The fact ministers failed to plan is yet more staggering incompetence.”
The government has announced it is making it illegal in England for groups of more than six people to gather, after a sudden rise in the number of people being infected with the virus. Nearly 8,500 positive tests have been recorded in the country in the last three days.
The NHS website states that anyone in the UK can get a free test if they have symptoms such as a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change in sense of smell or test. It adds: “You can get a test for someone you live with if they have these symptoms. Do not get tests for people you live with who do not have these symptoms.”
On Tuesday, Hancock suggested the problems that had made it difficult for some people to access Covid-19 tests may not be resolved for a fortnight.
A senior official at NHS Test and Trace issued a “heartfelt” apology to people who could not get tests. The director of testing, Sarah-Jane Marsh, tweeted on Tuesday morning: “All of our testing sites have capacity, which is why they don’t look overcrowded, its [sic] our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch-point. We are doing all we can to expand quickly.”
Asked about Marsh’s tweet and pressed on how soon the issues could be resolved, Hancock told the health and social care select committee: “In the coming weeks. We are working on it incredibly hard.”
He added: “We’re doing everything that we can. We have had these operational issues that I have talked about, we have had a problem with a couple of contracts and we discussed some of that in the House of Commons. But it’s a matter of a couple of weeks until we can get all of that sorted in the short term.”