Baroness Dido Harding partially blames it on schools reopening after being told “clearly you didn’t prepare enough” over summer.
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The head of Test and Trace has said she doesn’t believe “anybody was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand” for coronavirus tests.
Baroness Dido Harding’s admission came after some residents in COVID-19 hotspots complained they were finding it difficult to get tested.
Reports have poured in of people saying they were told tests were unavailable or had to be done hundreds of miles away from where they live.
Greg Clark, a Tory MP who chairs the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said: “It is dispiriting to find that we are now in September, in circumstances which are entirely predictable – people are going back to school, people are going back to work – and we haven’t had the right capacity put in place during the quieter times of June, July and August.”
He told Baroness Harding when she gave evidence on Thursday: “Clearly you didn’t prepare enough.”
The head of Test and Trace insisted that it had not been a “quiet summer” but admitted: “Plainly we don’t have enough testing capacity.”
Baroness Harding also confirmed that key workers are going to be prioritised for coronavirus tests – with teachers “likely to be top of that list” so schools can “remain functioning”.
She added that about 50% of tests are being reserved for hospital patients, social care staff and residents, and NHS workers – including GPs and pharmacists.
The Conservative peer partially blamed the big rise in demand on schools reopening, revealing the number of children asking for tests has doubled – and grew at an even higher rate among those aged five to nine years old.
And she confirmed the current daily test capacity is 242,000 – though not all of this capacity is being used.
The next target is 500,000 a day by the end of October, but Baroness Harding refused to say if that would be enough.
“I am certain we will need more as we go beyond the end of October,” she said.
Baroness Harding also suggested the failure to give everyone their test result in 24 hours was deliberate – to not put too much strain on labs.
“We made a conscious decision, because of the huge increase in demand, to extend the turnaround times in order to process more tests over the course of the last couple of weeks,” she revealed.
She also faced questions about her appointment as the head of National Institute for Health Protection – which subsumed Public Health England, Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
Who is Baroness Harding and why was her appointment controversial?
Asked why she was given the top job without applying or going through a competitive process, Baroness Harding defended her suitability.
She said ministers wanted to get someone in fast and explained she is only the interim leader while a full application process is carried out.
She described her role as a complex job with many requirements including services and logistics, for which experience in retail will help.
Baroness Harding was head of telecoms giant TalkTalk when it suffered a huge cyberattack in 2015 with 157,000 customers’ information accessed.
Her admissions about testing problems contrast with Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, who earlier told people to stop their “endless carping” about test problems and claimed the current system is a “phenomenal success”.
It comes as the head of Ireland’s Health Service Executive, Paul Reid, said senior NHS officials contacted him to ask if Irish labs could be used to turn around UK tests.
He said they were not able to so the request was turned down but the UK Test and Trace system may “almost collapse”.
Prof Allyson Pollock, director of the health and society institute at Newcastle University, said of the new restrictions being imposed on large parts of northeast England: “There’s no doubt that if Test and Trace had been working efficiently and effectively we wouldn’t be in this situation.
“This is a mess entirely of the government’s making and the public unfortunately are having to bear the pain of this.
“A big part of the problem is politicians blaming the public, who have been absolutely incredible.”
Former prime minister David Cameron also told LBC on Thursday “the danger is” the government is being “very reactive” to coronavirus.
He said he and the four other living former premiers are “all very keen” to push for mass testing.