Saturday, 15 Aug 2020

Coronavirus: Ministers urged to ‘come clean’ after COVID-19 testing regime revelations

Ministers have been urged to “come clean” after Sir Keir Starmer said a Sky News report revealing the confusion over coronavirus test numbers was “very concerning”.

The Labour Party leader piled pressure on the government to release the results of an internal audit which showed some figures on the COVID-19 tests do not add up.

His comments came in response to officials telling Sky News they “completely buffed the system” and “we will probably never know how many people have been tested for the virus“.

They had been racing to meet the 100,000 tests a day target set by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

In the wake of the story being published, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) published new data showing the cumulative number of people tested between the end of January and late May was just under two million.

But Sky News’ economic editor Ed Conway said it raised “serious questions” since the new figures are “inconsistent with the figures previously released by the government”.

He explained: “At the government press conference on May 21, the health secretary announced that the cumulative number of people tested had already surpassed two million, hitting 2.06 million.

“However, the figures released by DHSC today now show that by that stage in fact only 1.64 million people had been tested – in other words at the time Mr Hancock had overstated the number who had been tested by just over 429,000.”

The discrepancies have led to Sir Keir calling on the government to clear up the issue for good.

“I’ve seen this report from Sky on testing and it’s very concerning,” he said during a visit to a manufacturer in Harlow, Essex.

“I think there was an internal audit. What I say to the government is: Open the books. We know there’s been double counting, we know that some of the tests sent out never made it back.

“And we haven’t had the number of people tested everyday published for over a month.

“This has got to be cleared up. It’s so important to confidence. This isn’t just about the numbers.

Referring to the chancellor subsidising meals out to support the return of restaurant and cafes, Sir Keir added: “‘Do the public have confidence in the system?’ is critical to the economy. Because food vouchers to eat out will only work if people have confidence.

“So open the books, show us the workings and come clean on this.”

Government sources have insisted the test system is improving, pointing to small but significant changes in the way information is recorded and reported.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We rapidly built, from scratch, a large-scale testing programme and can now provide a test to anybody who needs one.

“Over 11 million tests have been delivered so far and we have the capacity to carry out more than 300,000 tests per day – helping to curb the spread of the virus and save lives.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have been transparent about our response to coronavirus and are always looking to improve the data we publish, including the way we update testing statistics.

“We have engaged with the Office of National Statistics and the Office for Statistics Regulation on our new approach to these publications and will continue to work closely with them as we develop these figures.”

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