Published: 10:51, 19 May 2020
| Updated: 11:06, 19 May 2020
The government was too slow in rolling out its "inadequate" testing programme during the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak, a senior MP has said.
Parliamentary science and technology committee chairman Greg Clark, who is MP for Tunbridge Wells, has accused the government of not acting quickly enough to put in place the kind of network of testing seen in other countries.
Although figures show the government met its target to carry out more than 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, there are still concerns about the capacity for wider testing and tracing required to allow any further easing of lockdown restrictions.
Mr Clark has now written to the Prime Minister with recommendations from his committee, including the need for greater transparency on scientific advice and a rapid scaling up of testing capacity instead of the gradual 'ramping up' approach taken so far.
"Testing capacity has been inadequate for most of the pandemic so far," Mr Clark writes in his letter to Number 10.
"Capacity was not increased early enough or boldly enough. Capacity drove strategy, rather than strategy driving capacity.
"One of the most significant problems of the handling of the pandemic to date in the United Kingdom has been the lack of capacity to test people to determine whether they have Covid-19. Very low numbers of people were being tested well into March, with the number of tests actually falling at a critical time to 1,215 on 10 March.
"The committee has found a consensus embracing a broad range of experts from within the UK and overseas - including among the government’s scientific advisers - that testing capacity has been too low."
It is recommended by the committee of MPs that the government learn lessons from the slowness of providing widespread testing, and that it should publish the assessment of other countries’ testing models on which the decision to follow a centralised, sequential approach here was based.
Earlier this month the health secretary claimed the UK is now a world leader in testing for Covid-19, as he conceded that capacity for checks has needed to be built up “almost from scratch” since the start of the outbreak.
Matt Hancock admitted that it would have been “wonderful” to have a diagnostics industry like Germany to tackle the coronavirus crisis, but insisted the UK had caught up with the Germans in terms of testing.
Speaking to Sky News following the publication of the committee's findings, Mr Clark said: "I think the most pressing thing is to accept that we got it wrong on testing.
"We were too slow, tried to do it in too centralised a way, and what other countries like South Korea and Hong Kong did is that they threw everything at it from the start.
"They used lots of different labs in the public sector, private sector and research institutions so they had lots of testing, whereas we in effect ended up limiting testing to testing within hospitals.
"The key lesson - which applies to antibody testing, it applies to when we get vaccines - is that you have to be prepared to throw everything at it, rather than to slowly increase capacity over time."
In a statement to the BBC, Downing Street said: "Now everyone aged five and over who has symptoms and needs a test can get one - and we will continue to build this capacity.
"This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice."