The UK Government's 24-Hour U-Turn On Coronavirus Testing Is Revealed In Its "Lines To Take" For Ministers

    On Wednesday, ministers were told to say World Health Organisation advice on testing didn't apply to the UK. On Thursday, they were told to say testing "is the government's top priority".

    Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

    The journalists at BuzzFeed News are proud to bring you trustworthy and relevant reporting about the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member and sign up for our newsletter, Outbreak Today.


    The UK government's screeching U-turn on coronavirus testing is laid bare in two internal memos leaked to BuzzFeed News over the last 24 hours.

    On Wednesday, a "lines to take" briefing note — which are sent to ministers and MPs every morning to help them handle questions from the media — instructed government spokespeople to dismiss criticisms of the UK's testing record.

    If asked why the UK was not following World Health Organisation advice to "test test test" like Germany, ministers and MPs were yesterday told to reject the WHO guidance.

    "When the WHO talks about testing, it is addressing the global system. Not all countries have the same infrastructure as the UK and there are countries that the WHO needs to press on testing," Wednesday's internal memo told ministers to say.

    Supplied

    But that line was deleted from Thursday morning's memo and replaced with a new line to take for ministers and MPs that is almost the complete reverse.

    "Increasing testing capacity is the government's top priority, and we are working around the clock and across the country to rapidly boost capacity," ministers are now being told to say.

    Supplied

    The UK government's public statements on testing have changed dramatically following mounting media criticism and concerns from experts that not enough is being done. On Tuesday, BuzzFeed News reported on why the UK is testing fewer coronavirus cases than even the US.

    On Wednesday, business secretary Alok Sharma and Public Health England's medical director, professor Yvonne Doyle, were asked repeatedly at the government's daily media briefing about the failure to hit testing targets.

    Even normally loyal newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph — the prime minister's previous employer — rounded on the government's approach on their front pages on Thursday morning.

    Significant that the two most pro-Boris Johnson papers have used their splashes to torch the UK government’s coronavirus response. No cover now.

    On Wednesday night, prime minister Boris Johnson posted a video on Twitter saying that the government was "massively increasing testing" and claiming that he'd been saying for "weeks and weeks " that testing was "how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end."

    Here's an update to bring you up to speed on some of the things that we are doing to protect our NHS. We will beat coronavirus together by staying at home, protecting our NHS and saving lives. #StayHomeSaveLives

    The statement was a striking U-turn on remarks made by England's deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries last week.

    "There comes a point in a pandemic when [testing of every case] is not an appropriate intervention and that is the point where we moved,” Dr Harries had said. “Although we still do some contact tracing and testing, for example in high-risk areas like prisons and care homes, that is not an appropriate mechanism as we go forward.”

    And even as the prime minister's video was being posted on Twitter on Wednesday night, Jonathan Van-Tam, also a deputy chief medical officer, was telling ITV's Robert Peston that testing was a "side issue" for reducing deaths.

    Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

    Contact Alex Wickham at alex.wickham@buzzfeed.com.

    Got a confidential tip? Submit it here