It’s a simple question: how many people are getting tested for Covid-19 each day?
At a time when multiple media reports suggest the coronavirus testing system is under strain, this is a key statistic.
Government ministers have tended to focus on figures for testing “capacity”. But this only tells us how many tests laboratories say they are able to process each day.
The surprising truth is that no official body publishes figures on the number of people who are tested each day in the UK.
Matt Hancock said this weekend that 226,000 people were tested for coronavirus on Saturday. But the Department of Health hasn’t provided FactCheck with any evidence to back this up.
And Baroness Dido Harding, who’s in charge of the Test and Trace system, told a Parliamentary committee last week that “today 207,000 people were tested” and “yesterday 213,000 people were tested” (referring in the latter case to 14 September).
The Department of Health confirmed to us that they don’t publish data on people tested daily. Nor does Public Health England, or the Office for National Statistics.
It may be that Mr Hancock and Baroness Harding have access to information behind the scenes that would shed some light. But we can’t verify their claims without seeing those stats, if they exist, for ourselves.
Can we get close to a figure?
The coronavirus daily testing dashboard shows how many tests were processed on the latest day for which figures are available (usually the previous day). But the dashboard makes clear that: “This is a count of test results and may include multiple tests for an individual person”.
This is important because we know that, especially in hospitals, individual patients with suspected Covid-19 may be tested more than once by doctors if the first result comes back negative. (As FactCheck reported earlier in the pandemic, the current “PCR” lab tests sometimes say that a patient doesn’t have coronavirus when in fact they do).
In short: this data only tells us about the number of tests processed, not the number of people tested.
Separately, the weekly Test and Trace figures tell us about people who have been tested for the first time. The latest release shows that an average of around 84,000 people were tested each day in England between September 10 and 16.
But that’s only part of the story because the data omits those who have had tests in the past.
It doesn’t look like any of the four nations publishes information on the number of people tested each day.
In Scotland, the data “refers to the total number of people who have been tested for COVID-19 in Scotland to date. Each person is only counted once regardless of repeat tests.”
Meanwhile in Wales, “individuals who are tested multiple times during a six-week period are only counted once during that period”.
When asked by FactCheck how many people are tested for Covid-19 each day, a spokesperson for the Northern Irish Public Health Agency pointed us to data on the number of tests.
The Scottish government was contacted for comment, as was Public Health Wales.