England’s Test & Trace chief Dido Harding today said nobody in the organisation was able to predict that demand for coronavirus tests would surge when schools went back.
Lady Harding, who is the chair of the testing and tracing system, blamed the start of the new school year for demand ‘significantly outstripping’ test capacity.
September saw huge backlogs in the testing system across the country, with hundreds complaining they were unable to book tests anywhere near their homes and availability having to be throttled so labs could process the tests that were done.
In a meeting with MPs this morning, Lady Harding admitted the ‘balance between supply and the demand forecast wasn’t right’.
And when pressed on when the next peak in demand for tests might be, the testing chief repeatedly refused to answer the question and said it wasn’t her job to predict it.
Angry MPs insisted it was and that it was her job to plan for how the system would cope when it came.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to Test & Trace, said there would be sustained pressure on the test system over winter and that the system would need to be capable of more than the 500,000 per day that officials currently claim it can do.
Baroness Dido Harding, chief of NHS Test & Trace, appeared in front of MPs on the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology committees this morning
Carol Monaghan, the SNP MP for Glasgow North West, asked Lady Harding when she anticipated the next large demand for testing would be.
‘You might want to ask Dr Susan Hopkins for her view,’ Lady Harding said, ‘because in the end, this is about a view on where we think the disease will progress.’
Chair of the meeting, Greg Clark, interrupted, asking for Lady Harding’s view, and Ms Monaghan also pushed back, saying: ‘It’s about planning – it’s about planning how we’re going to tackle it, as well.’
When pressed by Mr Clark, the testing chief tried to deflect the question again, saying: ‘My view is that we need to keep expanding testing capacity significantly and substantially.’
The meeting’s chair pushed again and Lady Harding said: ‘Honestly, I defer to the clinical experts on that, rather than think of it as my job to know the answer to that question.’
Lady Harding is the interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, which runs Test and Trace despite its NHS name, meaning she is ultimately accountable for the entire system. She reports to Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.
She was grilled today by MPs on Parliament’s Health and Social Care and Science and Technology committees this morning, in a session titled ‘Coronavirus: lessons learnt’.
Explaining what had happened in September when the testing system became overloaded, she said: ‘What happened, not so much in August as in September – the first couple of weeks in September, as schools came back – we saw demand significantly outstrip that planned capacity delivery.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, could we have built testing capacity faster? Well I’m not actually sure that anyone could.
‘The reality is that in Scotland you saw the same peak of demand for testing in Scotland as schools came back – none of us were able to predict that in advance.
‘We were moving as fast as a team was capable of doing through the summer to expand that testing capacity…
‘The good news is that, as we stand now, testing is completely unconstrained across all four nations.’
Ms Monaghan replied: ‘You said you were not able to anticipate that when millions of schoolchildren and students went back into schools and university settings that there was going to be an increase in demand.
‘I think many of us would find that difficult to understand.
‘But, I’m going to ask you again, when do anticipate the next major demand for testing is going to be?’
Lady Harding, referencing a similar comment she had made earlier, said: ‘I said that we did not anticipate the exact amount, correct, but we were expecting demand to grow and we were growing capacity faster than any other European country to meet it.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, the balance between supply and the demand forecast wasn’t right, clearly that’s true.
‘But what you’ve also seen in the last six weeks is that we’ve met our commitments to get that supply and demand into balance.’
Asked when demand could increase again, Baroness Harding said: ‘Armed only with my crystal ball, all of us are working so hard with experts in science, in medicine, in behavioural science to understand what may happen as we go forward.’