Health chiefs are aiming to check 100,000 people a day for coronavirus as part of a new project with private sector labs, one of the country’s top officials has said.
Medical director of Public Health England, professor Paul Cosford, made the claim amid growing criticism of the government failing to reach testing targets ministers have already set.
Only around 8,000 hospital patients and NHS staff are being tested daily, despite pledges this would have reached 20,000.
Cosford said “everybody involved is frustrated” about the low level of checks being carried out so far but the rate of testing would “increase rapidly”.
The 100,000 tests would be the “antigen” tests, which show if someone has the virus, as opposed to the anti-bodies tests, which indicate whether someone’s body has fought off the disease and is immune.
PHE has already said it is aiming to reach 25,000 tests using its own facilities by the end of the month.
Cosford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the testing project would be in place “over the coming days and a small number of weeks”.
“Our role has always been to – and I speak from Public Health England (PHE) – make sure our labs are doing what they need to do and we’re rolling tests out to the NHS for clinical treatment of patients,” he said.
“There is some capacity that is available within that in order to start testing NHS staff and that’s being done.
“You’ve heard about the 2,000 yesterday – nowhere near where we need to get to but it’s a good start – and then there’s the drive-through systems that are beginning.”
Asked why other testing facilities were not being used, Cosford said PHE is most closely involved in NHS testing before adding: “The second (strand) is how we can use all of those laboratories, all of that capacity, to boost up at least 100,000 tests a day, hopefully more.”
In other grim news, Cosford accepted that the UK death toll could rise sharply over the coming days.
Some 2,352 virus patients have died in hospital so far.
Asked if the UK was on course for 1,000 deaths a day by the weekend, he said: “My expectation – and I think the expectation of those looking at this most closely – is that we will continue to see an increase in the numbers of people being infected and admitted to hospital over the next two to three weeks, but we should hit a plateau if all the social distancing measures are working in about two to three weeks’ time.”