Health secretary Matt Hancock vowed that the UK will be carrying out 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of April — with all NHS staff able to be tested — as he laid out a "five pillar" approach to take on the pandemic in a significant turnaround of the government's communications strategy.
After days of heavy criticism from frontline NHS staff and dire coverage in the media over Britain's record on testing, Hancock took a more transparent approach than previous government ministers as he told the nation: "I'm going to level with you."
The UK had been unable to match the level of testing in countries such as Germany because of its smaller diagnostics industry and a shortage of swabs and chemicals, he admitted.
But the health secretary committed to increasing overall testing capacity to 100,000 per day by the end of April. This number includes both antigen tests, which tell whether someone currently has the virus, and antibody tests, which tell whether they have previously had it. Eventually the UK wants to be able to carry out 250,000 tests per day.
On his first day back in front of the cameras since testing positive for the virus, Hancock said he would increase swab testing in NHS and Public Health England labs, work with commercial partners including businesses and universities to boost swab testing capacity, work with private companies to produce an antibody blood test to determine who has previously had the virus, use these antibody tests to surveil the rate of infection across the country, and build an "at scale" British diagnostics industry to process tests.
He warned that while the UK had bought 17.5 million potential antibody tests — subject to them working — that could potentially help provide an "exit strategy" from the current lockdown measures. But some of the tests offered to the government so far did not work. "Approving tests that don't work is dangerous and I will not do it," he said.
The health secretary's hourlong press briefing on Thursday evening marked a tangible change in the government's communications this week, which had come under heavy fire.
Hancock's plan offered more clarity about the new strategy to fight the coronavirus than other senior ministers such as Michael Gove and Alok Sharma managed when they did the briefings this week. In another notable shift, Hancock also allowed follow-up questions from reporters to press him on the details.
Asked whether criticism of the government this week has been fair, he replied: "I've been quite candid that we take ideas from everywhere. This has been an effort in which we have listened."
Hancock urged Premier League footballers to take pay cuts in light of "the sacrifices that many people are making including some of my colleagues in the NHS".
He also paid tribute to NHS workers from abroad who have died after contracting the virus in recent days.
"I am awed by the dedication of colleagues on the front line. Every single person who contributes to the running of this diverse and caring institution that our nation holds dear.
"Many of those who have died who are from the NHS were people who came to this country to make a difference, and they did, and they've given their lives in sacrifice, and we salute them."