Under pressure, UK government promises 100,000 daily coronavirus tests


LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s health minister on Thursday promised a tenfold increase in the number of daily tests for coronavirus by the end of the month after the government faced criticism for failing to roll out mass checks for health workers and the public.

Appearing for the first time since recovering from the virus himself and ending a period of self-isolation, Matt Hancock announced a new strategy to ramp up the UK diagnostics industry.

“I am now setting the goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month. That is the goal and I am determined that we will get there,” Hancock told reporters.

Britain initially took a restrained approach to the outbreak but changed tack after modelling showed a quarter of a million people in the country could die.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson later imposed more stringent measures but the government has faced widespread criticism for having too few ventilators and too little testing.

Johnson, who announced last week he had also tested positive for coronavirus and was self-isolating, said in a video message on Wednesday night that testing was crucial to overcoming the crisis and would be massively increased.

“As I have said for weeks and weeks, this is the way through: this is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle, this is how we will defeat it in the end,” he said.

In his Thursday news conference, Hancock sought to give clarity on the government’s testing strategy after a slew of sometimes contradictory statements from ministers and officials.

While Germany has been testing about 500,000 people a week, Britain has been conducting about 10,000 tests a day.

The United Kingdom’s coronavirus deaths rose 24 percent to 2,921 as of April 1. As of 0800 GMT on April 2, 163,194 people had been tested of which 33,718 were positive.

More than half of Britons think Johnson’s government was too slow to order a lockdown, an Ipsos MORI poll showed.

Tests are essential for fighting the virus and nursing the economy back to health after what is expected to be the worst quarter in around a century.

Testing frontline health staff allows those with immunity to return to work while broader testing of the population would allow tens of millions of idled workers back to work.

Showing just how bad coronavirus could be for the economy, British Airways said it was in talks about suspending 32,000 employees, while a survey showed that more than a quarter of British companies had reduced staff levels.

Additional reporting by Costas Pitas, Alistair Smout and Elizabeth Howcroft, editing by Estelle Shirbon and Stephen Addison