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Coronavirus testing: Government claims fact-checked

Covid-19 testing centre Image copyright Getty Images

The government is facing criticism over its “world-beating” coronavirus testing system after people reported struggles to get tests, including being offered slots at testing centres a long way away.

Ministers have been defending the NHS test-and-trace system for England, and have claimed that testing capacity is increasing and that the average trip to a test centre isn’t that far.

We’ve looked at three of their claims.

Claim 1. Matt Hancock: “The average distance travelled to a test site is now just 5.8 miles”

The health secretary made this claim in the House of Commons – last week, he said the average distance was 6.4 miles.

The problem is, we’ve no way of telling whether this is the case, as the government is not releasing its data on distances to Covid-19 test centres.

We’ve asked the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for the figures repeatedly. It says it plans to release them “soon” but that’s not much help assessing Mr Hancock’s claim now.

The DHSC has though given us limited information about its methodology.

Image copyright Getty Images

It says the average distance refers to “as the crow flies”, so this doesn’t take into account that most roads are not in a straight line between someone’s house and the testing site. This means the average distance travelled will be higher.

For example, if someone was to drive between the BBC offices in central London and the Wembley testing facility, the exact distance between the two is 5.5 miles (8.9km). However, once you take into account the actual roads, this increases to about eight miles.

Last week, Mr Hancock also said “90% of people travel less than 22 miles”. Again, we haven’t seen the data on this. It would mean, though, that 10% travelled further.

In the latest week, 199,000 tests were processed from regional testing facilities (this doesn’t include home tests or mobile tests), meaning as many as 20,000 people in England travelled over 22 miles.

And the other big thing we don’t know is how many people try and fail to get a test, or how many are offered one a long way away and decide not to take it.

Claim 2. Priti Patel: “The government has been consistently increasing testing capacity, but also laboratory capacity”

The home secretary is correct that government data shows that both testing capacity and laboratory capacity have increased considerably since the beginning of the pandemic.

However, there has been a sizeable gap between how many tests labs are able to process (“capacity”) and the number of tests actually processed.

For example, on 10 September, labs in the UK would have been able to process 244,000 antigen tests, which indicate if you currently have the virus, but processed 204,000. This means, in theory, labs could have processed results for 40,000 more tests.

Last week, Sarah-Jane Marsh, a director of the government’s test-and-trace programme in England, confirmed there was a problem with the labs, offering a “heartfelt apology” to those who couldn’t get a test.

“All of our testing sites have capacity, which is why they don’t look overcrowded, it’s our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch-point,” she said.

Data on backlogs in labs is not publicly available, but on Tuesday Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the backlog was “less than a day’s capacity”. This means it could be anywhere up to 244,000.

He added that this has been driven by a surge in demand as children go back to school and adults return to work.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Professor Alan McNally, who helped set up the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab, suggested that there could be an issue in the supply chain.

“The labs are still fully staffed, they are still churning through huge amounts of samples per day – the same number as they were a couple of months ago – so there are problems elsewhere in the chain,” he said.

Claim 3. Priti Patel: “There is a lot more mobile testing that’s taking place, particularly in lockdown areas, but also home testing kits being sent to people”

Outside permanent drive-through testing sites, people can also get home testing kits delivered to their homes or visit mobile testing sites, which move around according to demand.

Ms Patel is correct that there has been an increase in both of these, doubling in number since the end of May.

It is difficult to confirm whether more tests are taking place in lockdown areas because – again – the government does not release this data by local authority. We also don’t know how many people have asked for tests but have not been able to get them when they want them.

This afternoon, the health secretary said 9,278 Pillar 2 – or commercially run – tests were carried out in the top 10 most affected areas of the country. That equates to about 7.5% of all tests on an average day.

These 10 areas make up 5% of the population, meaning they are receiving proportionally more tests.

Certain types of test have also seen an increase in the time it takes to receive results, with home tests and satellite tests seeing average time increases in the past few weeks. The majority of tests from mobile testing units are being turned around within 24 hours though.

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