Wed 27 January 2021

Amid a backlog in domestic labs, the UK shipped tests to the United States, Italy and Germany for analysis, Sam Bright reveals

Nearly half a million COVID-19 tests were sent abroad for analysis, after the UK’s ‘test and trace’ system struggled to cope with demand, the Government has admitted.

Responding to a written parliamentary question from Labour’s Dame Diana Johnson earlier this week, Health Minister Helen Whately detailed the number of tests exported abroad for analysis.

In May, 66,648 tests were sent to the United States while, from late August to 3 October, 271,716 tests were sent to Italy and 126,338 to Germany. Whately also said that roughly 150,000 tests a month are sent to Germany, under an agreement with a German testing provider.

The UK experienced a scramble to ramp up its testing capacity in April, after Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock pledged 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month.

The country’s testing regime had been lagging far behind its international counterparts, due to an apparent lack of resources. When it entered its first national lockdown in mid-March, the country was only testing between 5,000 and 10,000 people a day.

But this wasn’t the end of the problems for the UK’s test and trace system.

After a Summer interlude from lockdown, a spike in cases inflicted paralysis in September, with hundreds of thousands of cases backlogged and testing turnaround times increasing precipitously. Faced with this strain, it appears as though the head of test and trace, Baroness Dido Harding, took the decision to send thousands of tests abroad, to labs that could cope with the UK’s surge.

As this was happening, she appeared before MPs to claim that nobody “was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand” for tests in September. This was a month when school children returned to classrooms, students to universities, and a matter of weeks after Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme had ended.

Therefore, in haste, the UK called in help from the Europeans. So much for ‘going it alone’.

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