After a succession of daily press briefings from Downing Street that saw ministers fail hopelessly to answer reporters’ questions about coronavirus, Matt Hancock’s performance on Thursday evening looked almost like a tour de force. The health secretary, fresh out of self-isolation after testing positive for the virus himself, gave lengthy answers and invited follow-up questions in a briefing that lasted almost three times as long as usual.
Unlike his colleagues earlier in the week, he had a big announcement to make as he set a goal of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April. He acknowledged public disquiet over the slow pace of testing in the UK, which has struggled to reach 10,000 a day, saying he understands why the government’s approach has faced criticism.
But Hancock’s apparent candour and the determination with which he set out a five-point plan to scale up testing could not disguise the dramatic U-turn he was performing or obscure the doubts that linger over the new strategy.
The health secretary's press briefing followed a video message on Wednesday night from a distinctly peaky-looking Boris Johnson, who has also tested positive for coronavirus and remains in self-isolation in Downing Street.
Just a week ago, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries was dismissing the WHO's injunction to "test, test, test"
“I want to say a special word about testing because it is so important. As I have said for weeks and weeks, this is the way through: this is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle, this is how we will defeat it in the end,” the prime minister said.
Just a week ago, however, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries was dismissing the World Health Organisation's injunction to "test, test, test" as a message aimed at less developed countries than the UK. She said that "there comes a point in a pandemic where that is not an appropriate intervention", adding that the UK had always planned to focus on testing those who were admitted to hospital.
When Johnson promised two weeks ago to ramp up testing to 250,000 a day, he was referring to a blood test that could tell if someone has had the virus and has developed antibodies showing that they now hopefully have some immunity to it. But as John Newton, director of public health improvement for Public Health England, pointed out at Thursday's press briefing, the focus should instead be on a swab antigen test that shows if someone has the virus now.
"The initial priority, of course, is for the swab tests because those are tests which allow the NHS to manage critically ill patients to the best they possibly can and also to allow NHS staff and other key workers to come back to work when they can," he said.
The U-turn on testing came after usually friendly newspapers including the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph criticised the lack of testing for NHS staf
“The antibody tests are ideally done 28 days after an infection, so in fact the requirement for the antibody test isn’t really with us yet. So the urgent priority – both types of tests are important, both are urgent – but the most urgent is the swab tests so that we can treat patients better and get staff back to work.”
The government’s U-turn on testing came after usually friendly newspapers including the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph criticised the lack of testing for frontline National Health Service staff. Many doctors and nurses are off work because they or family members are displaying symptoms of the virus but they have been unable to get tested.
The government’s pivot on testing follows its change of strategy last month away from a policy of trying to mitigate the virus towards suppressing it. In both cases, the change of direction is welcome and brings the UK into closer alignment with the international mainstream in combating the coronavirus.
Hancock's continued emphasis on antibody tests suggests the government remains attached to the hope that evidence of widespread immunity could get the UK back to work
Each time, ministers and public health officials have denied that they have changed direction and have refused to admit that they may have wasted valuable time pursuing misguided strategies. And Hancock’s continued emphasis on antibody tests on Thursday suggests that the government remains attached to the hope that evidence of widespread immunity could be the way to get the UK back to work.
He even endorsed the idea of an “immunity certificate” that those who have recovered from coronavirus could use as a passport back into work. Such a certificate could also offer an incentive to those who believe themselves young and strong enough to seek out the infection in the hope of surviving it easily and going back to work.