“We had almost 240,000 people being tested on Monday”

That was the claim from the business secretary, Alok Sharma, this morning on BBC Breakfast.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has since told FactCheck that Mr Sharma meant to say that nearly 240,000 tests had been carried out – not that that number of people had been tested. Mr Sharma did not clarify this in his BBC interview.

It’s an important distinction because we know that the number of tests carried out exceeds the number of people tested.

The claim

Mr Sharma made the claim during an interview with BBC Breakfast this morning.

He hadn’t been asked directly about testing, but was making a more general comment about the progress the government has made since the start of the pandemic: “If you look at how far we have come in a matter of months, we’ve made sure we’ve got these six extra Nightingale hospitals, and a seventh due to open this month. The testing process, you know, we had almost 240,000 people being tested on Monday. These are remarkable things.”

The background

The difference between the number of tests carried out and the number of people tested has been contentious throughout the crisis.

The slides published alongside the government’s daily press briefings (including yesterday’s) note that “Some people are tested more than once”, though it’s not clear how many people are currently retested each day.

Earlier in the crisis, the extent of retesting appeared very high: in late March, Public Health England said that 8,278 tests had been carried out on 4,908 individuals in England.

In April, FactCheck reported that experts believed the reason for this disparity was that the tests could have a “false negative” rate of up to 30 per cent. This, the experts told us, meant that doctors might be repeating tests to confirm what they believed to be a case of coronavirus that hadn’t been picked up by a first or second test.

A spokesperson for Public Health England told FactCheck at the time: “It would be unfair to say that the test is not very reliable, there will be numerous reasons patients in inpatient settings will need to be retested throughout their patient journey.”

Since 29 May, the Department of Health has not published figures on the number of patients tested each day, saying: “Reporting on the number of people tested has been temporarily paused to ensure consistent reporting across all pillars. This is due to a small percentage of cases where the same person has had more than one test or tested positive more than once for COVID-19 in pillar 2”.

A similar caveat is still in place for the figures Mr Sharma was talking about. Note that the number of people tested is “unavailable”.

The “pillars” they refer to are the different strands of the government testing policy. Pillar 2 is “swab testing for the wider population aged 5 and over”.

On 2 June, the head of the UK Statistics Regulator, Sir David Norgrove, wrote to Matt Hancock about the testing figures.

In his letter, Sir David says: “the notes to the daily [press briefing] slides rightly say that some people may be tested more than once and it has been widely reported that swabs carried out simultaneously on a single patient are counted as multiple tests.”

He’s referring to a report from 21 May in the Telegraph that said the Department of Health and Public Health England had confirmed that “diagnostic tests which involve taking saliva and nasal samples from the same patient are being counted as two tests, not one.”

According to the Telegraph, “this inflates the daily reported diagnostic test numbers by over 20 per cent”.

Sir David’s letter says: “it is not clear from the [government’s] published data how often that is the case. Figures for the overall number of people being tested have previously been published but are not available in the published time series”.

We don’t know whether the double-counting has continued.

The Department of Health was contacted for comment.

FactCheck verdict

The business secretary, Alok Sharma, said this morning that 240,000 people had been tested on Monday for coronavirus. But that figure relates to the number of tests carried out – not the number of people receiving them.

It’s an important distinction because we know that the number of tests carried out exceeds the number of people tested. The government accepts that some people are tested more than once in a single day, though since the end of May, has not published figures telling us exactly how many.

According to a recent report in the Telegraph, officials admitted in late May that swabs taken from the mouth and nose of the same patient were counted as two tests. It’s not clear whether that is still the case.