Countdown clocks have had mixed results in British politics recently. The one at Conservative HQ ticking down to Brexit day last year embarrassingly ticked back up again when Boris Johnson missed his October 31 deadline.
That didn’t deter Matt Hancock’s team at the Department of Health from installing their own clock counting down to today, April 30: the date the health secretary boldly promised at the start of the month that the UK would carry out 100,000 coronavirus tests in a single day.
As the hours and minutes dropped down to zero, those involved in the unlikely race against time told BuzzFeed News that Hancock could still pull it off, but cautioned that it is possible he may miss his target by a few days. They insisted the government was approaching capacity for 100,000 tests per day, and would come close to conducting that number of tests on Thursday. The health secretary will announce whether or not he has succeeded at a press conference on Friday, after the numbers are counted.
In the last internal meeting before target day, Hancock told his team that even if they missed their target they had still put the UK in a strong position on testing: “Whatever happens tomorrow, we’ve done what we needed to do — we’ve ramped up our testing capacity more than anyone believed we could, and given the UK the testing capacity it needs to beat this virus.”
But others are more sceptical. On Tuesday, only 52,000 tests were carried out in Britain, leaving a monumental uphill battle in the last 48 hours. NHS Providers — the association for NHS trusts in England — criticised the government on Wednesday for a “lack of clarity on the testing regime”. They accused ministers of making “a series of frequent tactical announcements” to expand testing criteria, and claimed the 100,000 target was a “red herring”.
“A vast amount still remains to be done to reach a testing regime that can be described as fit for purpose,” their report warned.
Hancock believes, even if he does miss that number by a few days, that his 100,000 target has accelerated the ability of Britain to be able to ease some lockdown measures, by putting in place South Korean-style test and trace capabilities that will be central to the UK’s exit strategy.
The logic is simple: if the number of new COVID-19 cases per day falls below the government’s capacity to test new sufferers and those they’ve been in contact with, then theoretically those with the disease can be isolated, the outbreak can be brought under control, and some lockdown measures can start to be lifted.
The month-long mad dash to “ramp up” testing was described by those working on it as at times “like a French farce”, at others “surreal” as a former senior military commander and executives from Amazon tried to solve logistical nightmares via Zoom, and like a game of “whack-a-mole” as new problem after problem cropped up.
Hancock and his team have privately compared April 30 to polling day, with a massive “Get Out The Vote” style operation taking place to encourage people to leave their homes to get tested, and a time lag as the numbers are counted, compared by insiders to waiting for an exit poll to drop.
In a frenzied final drive to get people to testing sites or have kits sent to their homes, eligibility for testing was expanded massively to symptomatic over-65s and key workers. Tory MPs and ministers were ordered to tweet out links to the testing application page, Conservative HQ sent out a mailshot to its members urging them to get tested, as Hancock, testing minister James Bethell and their team anxiously studied the data coming in to track demand across the country.
“We are handing out tests to everyone and their mum to try and get demand up,” one Conservative said. There has been a “massive ramp up” in the final hours, Whitehall sources claimed.
But NHS Providers have warned that this rapid expansion of testing eligibility in an attempt to hit the target meant there was no clear sense of who was getting tested, and whether NHS and care workers were being prioritised.
Hancock’s aides are also worried about the effect the weather might have on their hopes of hitting the target. Just as a rainy forecast raises fears of lower turnout on election day, Department of Health officials became concerned that the poor weather this week would suppress the number of people willing to leave their homes for the regional test centres.
The health secretary has staked his political reputation on meeting the target, having to bat away questions over whether he would resign if he comes up short, and clashing with the prime minister’s aides behind the scenes and in the newspapers over his apparent “grandstanding”.