How the government performed on its autumn testing targets

6th Oct 2020

On 30 July, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) published a new series of “ambitions” for the NHS Test and Trace service.

Two of these were ambitions to achieve specific goals “by September”. They were:

  • “test 150,000 at-risk people without symptoms per day by September”. This was expressed more fully in the detailed planning document as, “expand asymptomatic testing and target it at groups and areas of greatest risk to help us find more positive cases, with an average of at least 150,000 asymptomatic tests per day by September”.
  • “have 100,000 people participating in research studies into COVID-19 immunity by September”.

The DHSC told us that “by September” meant that these were ambitions “for the end of September”.

There was also an ambition, with no deadline, to “introduce an app to support the NHS Test and Trace service”. This was achieved on 24 September.

How has the government done?

Currently published Covid-19 data does not let us measure whether the first target, to test 150,000 at-risk people without symptoms, has been met. The government reports the number of diagnostic, or PCR, tests being processed each day, but not how many people were tested. The data also doesn’t tell us how many of those tested had symptoms or were at risk of infection. The DHSC told us that these people include staff and residents in care homes, people undergoing elective surgery and asymptomatic testing as part of outbreak responses.

The average daily number of tests processed in the UK in the last week of September was 262,839. However, during that same period, on average 4,477 tests processed each day were Pillar 3 antibody tests, which means they do not detect whether someone is infected with Covid-19, but whether they had the disease in the past.

Without this category, an average of 258,362 tests each day were processed in the last week of September. Some of these may have been used for at-risk people without symptoms, but many will still have been used to test people with coronavirus symptoms and some will have been used to test the same person more than once.

An average of 28,852 were Pillar 4 tests, which means they were used in research studies of the general population, some of whom may have had symptoms or not been at risk.

When we contacted DHSC in September, it told us that data on the number of tests among at-risk people without symptoms was currently being analysed, and that a figure would be published at a later date.

What about research studies?

We cannot find any official data on the total number of people who are participating in research studies into Covid-19 immunity. However, the DHSC told us that this ambition had been met by the government’s own surveillance studies, including the REACT-2 survey.

This survey tested 109,076 people for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies between 20 June and 13 July, which means that the ambition had already been met before it was announced, on 30 July, although the results of this study weren’t published until 13 August.

We have written about the government’s other testing targets before.