The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has set the government a new target of carrying out 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day in England by the end of April as he sought to defend the government’s approach.
After several days of intense scrutiny over failures in testing, including the prioritisation of the public over doctors and nurses, Hancock said he was setting out a new “five-pillar” strategy.
He said England would hit 100,000 tests a day, which would include antigen tests that show whether people are currently suffering from Covid-19, as well as antibody tests to see whether people have had the infection and recovered.
Speaking at the end of his seven days of quarantine after testing positive for the virus, he said: “I’m now setting the goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month. That is the goal and I’m determined we’ll get there.”
On Tuesday, there was capacity for 12,799 daily tests in England, although just over 10,650 people were tested. The government’s target by mid-April had been to test 25,000 a day.
Hancock said it was his decision to prioritise testing of patients over NHS staff, and added that he thought any health secretary would have done the same.
“I understand why NHS staff want tests, so they can get back to the frontline, of course I do,” he said. “But I took the decision that the first priority has to be the patients for whom the results of a test could be the difference in treatment that is the difference between life and death.
“I believe anybody in my shoes would have taken the same decision.”
His announcement came at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing, where he announced that more than £13bn of historical debt owed by hospital trusts would be written off to place the National Health Service in a “stronger position” to respond to the crisis.
The health secretary said he had also made £300m available for community pharmacies and that he wanted to make sure “every part” of the health and care system was supported.
“Today, to help NHS trusts to deliver what’s needed without worrying about past finances, I can announce that I’m writing off £13.4bn of historic NHS debt,” he said.
“This landmark step will not only put the NHS in a stronger position to be able to respond to this global coronavirus pandemic, but it will ensure that our NHS has stronger foundations for the future too.”
In an unusually detailed press conference following several days of criticism of the government’s strategy, Hancock also attempted to confront claims that the UK is lagging behind the responses to the disease in other European countries such as Germany.
Hancock said he was going to “level with you” on the challenges the UK faced and the government’s plan to increase testing significantly.
The UK had not gone into this crisis with a huge diagnostics industry, as Germany had, he said, and so had been “catching up”.
Demand for materials had led to a shortage of both swabs and reagents, Hancock said. The swabs issue has been fixed but “we are still tackling the reagents issue, which is a global challenge”, he said.
In what appeared to be a first acknowledgement from the government that mistakes had been made, he added: “There will be criticisms made, and some of them will be justified.”
Hancock said there was a “challenge” in ensuring the public could have confidence in the tests being used on NHS staff. He added that a number of testing methods being analysed had failed to positively diagnose a coronavirus patient.
“In one case a test that I’m being urged to buy missed three out of four positive cases for coronavirus.
“That means that three-quarters of cases, that test would have given the false comfort of sending someone with coronavirus back on the wards. Approving tests that don’t work is dangerous and I will not do it,” he said.
Hancock paid an emotional tribute to NHS staff who had lost their lives, and expressed his “deepest condolences” to the friends and families of all coronavirus victims.
“If the past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that we are steadfast as a country in our resolve to defeat this invisible killer,” he said.
He went on to acknowledge that most of the NHS staff who had died had been migrants to the UK.
“I am profoundly moved by the compassion and the commitment that we are seeing from people right across the country, and in the health and care system we have lost colleagues too.
“Many of those who have died who are from the NHS were people who came to this country to make a difference, and they did, and they’ve given their lives in sacrifice, and we salute them,” he said.
Hancock said he had come back from self-isolation on Thursday “redoubled in my determination to fight this virus with everything I’ve got”.