Concerns grew today over Covid-19 spreading in care homes again as Matt Hancock revealed more than 100,000 tests a day are now being prioritised for social care.
This allocation is around a third of the daily total, which the Government claims to be more than 300,000, and highlighted the scale of the potential problem in care homes as the epidemic has started spreading again in Britain.
The Health Secretary also admitted it would take several weeks for the Government to meet the surging demand for tests as schools have re-opened and more people have returned to their workplace.
He appeared to signal that restrictions may be imposed on access to tests so best use could be made of the stock available.
MPs from both sides of the Commons urged the Government to swiftly boost testing to end the delays including a teacher who had to wait a week before she found it that she had tested positive for coronavirus.
Ministers were warned that the failings in the system risked allowing outbreaks to spiral.
Mr Hancock said there were “operational challenges” with testing which the Government is “working hard” to fix.
He added: “We’ve seen a sharp rise in people coming forward for a test, including those who are not eligible.
“And throughout this pandemic we have prioritised testing according to need.
“The top priority is and always has been acute clinical care. The next priority is social care, where we’re now sending over 100,000 tests a day because we’ve all seen the risks this virus poses in care homes.
“We’ll set out in full an updated prioritisation and I do not rule out further steps to make sure our tests are used according to those priorities.”
Jeremy Hunt, Conservative chairman of the Commons health committee and a Surrey MP, questioned Mr Hancock over whether a recent pledge to swiftly improve the testing system would be met.
He said: “A week ago today the Secretary of State told the Health Select Committee that he expected to have this problem solved in two weeks.
“Since then in my constituency I have had two Farnham residents sent to Bristol for their tests, a councillor sent to the Isle of Wight for her test and a teacher who tested positive had to wait a week for her results. So is the Secretary of State, given the efforts that his department is making, still confident that in a week’s time we will have this problem solved?”
Mr Hancock seemed to admit the two-week goal would not be met.
He replied: “Well I think that we will be able to solve this problem in a matter of weeks and in his own constituency yesterday 194 people got their tests. So we are managing to deliver record capacity, but as he well knows demand is also high and the response to that is to make sure we have prioritisation so the people who most need it can get the tests that they need.”
Tory MP Tim Loughton, who represents East Worthing and Shoreham, warned of local test shortages in areas of Sussex with rising numbers of cases as supply had been diverted to hotspots in the North.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth asked why the Government did not foresee a rise in infections.
He added: “When schools reopen and people return to workplaces and social distancing becomes harder infections rise.
“So extra demand on the system was inevitable, so why didn’t he use the summer to significantly expand NHS lab capacity and fix contact tracing?”
Responding, Mr Hancock said: “I don’t deny that it is an enormous challenge and when you have a free service it’s inevitable that demand rises.
“The challenge is to make sure that we prioritise the tests we have as a nation to those who most need it.”
He said that the average distance travelled to a test site is now 5.8 miles, down from 6.4 miles last week.
However, more and more MPs told of reports of constituents unable to get tests or having to travel long distance to get them.
GPs, doctors and nurses, as well as teachers and other workers are having to self-isolate as they await tests for themselves or their families, the Commons heard.
The SNP’s Dr Philippa Whitford stressed that with Covid cases doubling every week, it was clear that laboratory capacity for diagnostic testing is not keeping pace with demand.
She added: “With a reported backlog of 185,000 tests is he not concerned that results will not be received quickly enough to allow timely contact tracing and that the delay in data means new outbreaks won’t be identified until they are out of control?”
Mr Hancock said: “Yes, I think it is important that we expand the NHS labs and that we work across the whole of the UK to get the testing capacity that’s needed.”