The Government may miss its 100,000-a-day testing target but the public should recognise ministers for “being brave”, the Justice Secretary has said.
Robert Buckland insisted officials were “straining every sinew” to reach the threshold pledged by Matt Hancock earlier this month, despite falling some 50,000 short.
Official figures show that on Wednesday just 52,000 Covid-19 tests were carried out, and 19,000 of these are thought to be retests.
“Even if it [the target] isn’t met, we’re well on our way to ramping this up and 100,000 is an important milestone, but frankly we need more,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“Yes, 52,000 isn’t 100,000, I know that … but we are straining every sinew to get there.”
He added: “Being brave is something we should acknowledge even if the target isn’t met today.”
It came as hospital chiefs hit out at the target as a “red herring” to mask shortcomings in the Government’s response to tthe crisis.
NHS Providers, the representative for trusts in England, accused ministers of “a series of frequent tactical announcements” to distract from the “vast amount” that needs to be done.
A scathing document drawn up by the body claims the NHS “started from a poor position” as Covid-19 tightened its grip on Europe, and consistently “struggled” to demonstrate a “clear, effective and well communicated strategy”.
It dismissed the target as “arbitrary” and a “red herring” to distract from “no visibility on any long-term strategy”, calling on ministers to update its testing plan to address low levels of key worker testing, swabbing, and contact tracing to prevent a second wave of infections.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock vowed to meet the 100,000 threshold on April 2, reaffirmed by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week.
Professor John Newton, the Government’s testing tsar, said on Wednesday he remained “confident” of reaching the landmark by the end of April.
Chris Hopson, NHS Providers chief executive, said members were growing frustrated with the lack of a lockdown exit strategy for testing.
“As we consider the route out of lockdown, what trust leaders need now is clarity on the testing regime from here on,” he said.
“Setting a target for a number of tests for April 30 may have had a galvanising effect. But what matters most is an updated strategy to take us through the exit from lockdown.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said testing was “absolutely critical” and capacity at NHS and Public Health England laboratories had more than doubled within weeks.
A spokesman added: “Our aim as we tackle this virus is to make it easy, fast and simple for any essential worker who needs a test to get a test.”