Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted there were “challenges” with the coronavirus testing regime after a “sharp rise” in demand.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Hancock said the government was “working hard” to fix issues related to the availability of the COVID-19 test, but admitted that it could take “weeks”.
He revealed that the tests must now be given priority, and hinted that more tests could be legalized in the future.
“The entire House of Representatives knows that there are operational challenges and we are working hard to fix them,” the health minister said.
“We have seen a sharp increase in the number of people taking the test, including those who are not eligible.”
The government has come under increasing pressure from NHS hospital funds, public health officials and members of parliament due to the unavailability of coronavirus tests in some areas.
Hancock said he wouldn’t rule out giving testing an extra priority in order to ensure hospitals and care homes get the tests they need.
Currently, anyone showing symptoms of the Coronavirus can take the NHS test, as can those who have been asked to get tested by a hospital or local council.
“Throughout this epidemic, we have prioritized testing as needed,” the health minister told the deputies.
“During the summer, when the demand was low, we were able to fulfill all the requirements for testing whether it was a priority or not.
“But, as demand rises, we have to prioritize again. I don’t shy away from making decisions about prioritization.
“They aren’t always comfortable, but they matter. The top priority has always been acute clinical care.
“ The next priority is social care, as we are now sending more than 100,000 tests per day because we have all seen the risks this virus poses in care homes.
“We will fully update our priorities and do not rule out taking further steps to ensure that our tests are used according to those priorities.
“It is a choice we must make.”
Jonathan Ashworth, Labor’s shadow health minister, asked why Mr. Hancock had not used the summer to “dramatically expand” the laboratory’s capacity for testing, before pupils returned to school and people to the workplace.
“When schools open their doors and people return to work places, social distancing becomes more difficult to increase contagion,” Mr. Hancock said.
“So additional demand on the system was inevitable.”
Mr. Hancock replied, “I don’t deny that it’s a massive challenge, and when you have a free service, the demand is bound to rise.
“The challenge is to make sure that we prioritize the tests that we have as a nation for those who need them most.”
Jeremy Hunt, Conservative leader of the House of Commons Health Committee and predecessor of Hancock as Minister of Health, described how some of his constituents in Surrey were sent to Bristol or Isle of Wight for testing.
“I think we’ll be able to fix this problem in a matter of weeks,” replied Mr. Hancock.
“We are succeeding in providing standard capacity, but as he knows very well, demand is also high, and the response to that is to make sure that priorities are set so that the people who need it most can get the tests they need,” he added.
Earlier, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed that she had spoken to Mr. Hancock and Baroness Harding, Head of the UK Testing Program, about the issues and “to obtain assurances that Scotland will continue to have equitable access to laboratory capacity at the UK level”.
“I have concerns about capacity restrictions at the moment with the system at the UK level, and for Scotland in recent days, it wasn’t a question of accessing test slots at regional test centers or mobile testing units,” Sturgeon said.
But instead, it was a question of having access to adequate laboratory treatment for a ‘lighthouse’ and that’s what led to a buildup in the system and longer test times than we wanted it to be.
“Since this is a UK system, we are not able to solve this on our own and the issues are affected by demand elsewhere in the UK.”
Downing Street revealed that the test was being discussed at a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday morning.
A spokesperson for Number 10 said the government was “working to increase capacity”, including with a new lab facility in Leicestershire.
In the wake of the cabinet meeting, House of Commons Speaker Jacob Reyes Mug hailed the test program as a “government success”.
“I think it is going as best we can expect, given the demand,” he said.