Government ‘has scaled back adverts for coronavirus tests in bid to reduce demand’

Exclusive from PoliticsHome: Move comes as government insists it is working hard to increase capacity
Coronavirus testing message in Liverpool PA

By Alain Tolhurst

16 Sep 2020

The government has been scaling back advertising for coronavirus testing as a way of dealing with a level of demand that is outstripping capacity.

Amid numerous stories in recent days of people across the country being unable to book into a drive-through centre or order a home kit, the health secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons today that “capacity for testing is at a record high”.

And in response to an LBC report yesterday saying there were no tests available in any of the top 10 UK hotspots for Covid-19 infections, Number 10 said it was “wrong to say that testing is not available in these areas”, declaring the capacity was there.

However, a government source has told PoliticsHome the Department of Health has stripped back its advertising campaign for testing in the face of a level of demand that is outstripping capacity.

It is understood that this is just one of several measures being adopted in the face of the testing crisis, with changes to the booking website, and the scaling back of testing appointments in low-prevalence areas among them.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth asked Mr Hancock about the lack of testing in areas of high infection during an urgent question in Parliament.

The cabinet minister replied: “Well, the good news, in responding to that, is that capacity for testing is at a record high.

"The honourable gentleman raised the issue of testing in the top 10 local authorities - well, I have got the figures here.

“Yesterday, we processed 9,278 tests just in pillar 2 - so outside of the NHS testing capacity - in just those top 10 local authority areas.”

Ashworth said Hancock was "losing control of this virus” after the cabinet minister acknowledged it might be "a matter of weeks" before the problems are resolved.

Although the health secretary did admit there had been "operational" challenges to the testing system, he claimed there was a hold up of "less than a day's capacity" - currently around 225,000 for swab tests.

Asked about testing shortages, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: "We would say that it is wrong to say that testing is not available in [hotspots]

"Our capacity continues to be targeted to where it is most needed, which is why booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for people with symptoms.”

The spokesman added: "We are working hard to increase capacity. We have recently announced a new lab in Leicestershire, which will process around 50,000 antigen tests a day in the next few weeks, and we have also opened a new lab at Newport.”

And home secretary Priti Patel said: ”Tests are available, you've heard me say, particularly in local lockdown areas, I've seen this myself, I've seen the teams that have been working on this.

"Mobile testing is going in, capacity is going into local areas where lockdowns have been undertaken and are taking place.

"I think it is wrong to say tests are not available, new book-in slots are being made available every single day, mobile testing units are being made available."

The Department for Health and Social Care has not responded to requests from PoliticsHome for comment.

Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter at CSW's sister PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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