Olivia grilled Government officials in the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee on the Government’s failure to deliver coronavirus testing.

With people struggling to access a covid-19 test up and down the country, Olivia used yesterday’s (on 18th September) session on Digital Transformation in the NHS to hold the Government to account on its failure to deliver testing where its needed.

Olivia took the Government to task on the current testing crisis, fielding a series of questions to find out exactly why members of the public are struggling to access testing.

Below is a full transcript of Olivia’s questions and the answers she received from David Williams, Director General of Finance and Group Operations at the Department of Health and Second Permanent Secretary.

Olivia Blake: So earlier in the pandemic, the reason for difficulties with capacity was reagents, and that was repeated a number of times. I just wanted to understand what the actual issue with capacity is at the moment: is it the workers to conduct the lab tests in the lab, the lack of space or lack of PCR machines or other such analysis?

David Williams: I’m not sure there’s much more I can sensibly add to the information the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have shared with the House this week. Dido Harding is given evidence to the Science and Technology committee later today. But what I think it is just worth highlighting is that as the Prime Minister set out yesterday, we have a plan – a trajectory – to deliver 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. We are essentially on track against increasing our testing capacity to meet that ambition. We are testing around, or capable of testing around, a hundred times more people a day than at the start of the pandemic. Though whilst of course in a sort of population scale enterprise like this, there will always be a day-to-day operational challenges, and those are addressed, identified and sorted out. The particular challenge we face at the moment is the mismatch between demand and capacity, rather than the capacity is falling short of where we expected it to be.

Olivia Blake: Well, thank you for that answer. I don’t think we’re really touching on what the actual issue is there, so I’m going to ask all the questions because I had questions about whether it was one or the other. So these tests aren’t rocket science. Do you not think that the money for Moonshot would be better spent on the current testing technologies and capacity.

David Williams: Well, there are different use-cases and even within the current capacity there are tests for which rapid turnaround is particularly important and other tests for which accuracy is a more important factor. So, we have a blend of testing roots now matched to use-cases. I think the point about investment in future technologies is they might either allow us to deliver current testing activity more cheaply, more reliably, at a greater scale or with a quick turnaround. Innovating in the space I think is a perfectly sensible thing to do. Is that a choice about how those new tests are deployed?

Olivia Blake: But that doesn’t tackle the issue of the here-and-now and the second peak. So, if the issue is lab space, can I ask you how many universities, research sites or private labs have been approached for their space?

David Williams: I would have to ask by Dido and the testing team to write to the Committee with that information I’m afraid.

Olivia Blake: And if the issue is recruitment of staff and how many staff we have, how are we going to recruit for the four new labs? And what is the size of those labs?

David Williams: Well, as I say there’s a plan to increase capacity which we are delivering as part perhaps in follow-up information. We can set out how we get from the current level of testing capacity, around 250,000 a day, to 500,000 by the end of October and what that means in terms of lack of capacity, consumables, and staffing but we are essentially on track with our capacity plan, the challenge is that demand has grown substantially faster than the capacity that we have planned to deliver.

Olivia Blake: Okay. So, if the issue is recruitment, have you considered a similar call out to ex-scientists as was done with the NHS for nursing and medical staff?

David Williams: Well, I’m seriously trying to avoid agreeing that that’s particularly the challenge here. Let me ask the testing team to set out where they are at capacity what comes next, and which are the particular potential pinch points that they are actively managing as we expand for the Autumn.

Olivia Blake: I think that would be very useful for the Committee because I think it would be difficult to know how we know this money is good value-for-money if we don’t know the actual issue. And then the final question is about key workers. Lots of key workers don’t drive. In my own city the two walk-in centres have now closed. I’m concerned about key workers not being able to access tests. Have you done any assessment of the impact of these closures?

David Williams: So the testing team look quite actively at the delivery channels and which of those are best suited to which use case, whether it’s key workers, NHS and social care staff, care homes, elective patients and so on. So, this is an area that they keep under active review as you’ll see we redeployed testing capacity to particular areas of concern as part of our local intervention strategy. So it’s quite a dynamic position and a range of factors are taken into account on how best to deploy testing capacity of which I mean access and the ability of people to access particular channels is absolutely part of that.

Olivia Blake: The Committee has also been concerned about care homes and testing in the past. How has this current issue impacted on the access of care homes to testing?

David Williams: Well, let me just say on that, as I think the Secretary of State said to the House earlier in the week we’ll be shortly setting out the basis on which we are making prioritisation decisions for testing within the capacity that we have available. as that is set out, I think we’ll see that protecting a meaningful level of testing capacity precisely for care homes, for staff and people in care homes, is a high priority, and factored into that prioritization process.

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