At the beginning of April, Matt Hancock pledged that the UK would be carrying out 100,000 tests for coronavirus by the end of the April.
That deadline is fast approaching and some commentators, including leading scientists, have expressed doubt that there is enough time to hit that target.
The latest statistics published today show that 22,814 tests were carried out on 13,522 people on Tuesday April 21. Significant numbers of people have to be re-tested so the number of individuals is always smaller than the number of tests.
Government ministers have insisted they are still on track to hit the target – but they have been increasingly talking about “capacity” in response to questions on this topic.
Today Dominic Raab, standing in for Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions, used that word when the new Labour leader Keir Starmer asked him about daily testing figures.
Mr Raab said: “I do have to just correct him. Our capacity for tests is now at 40,000 per day, so I think that is an incredibly important milestone.”
“And of course he’s right to say that in the final week that in the final week that will require a big increase.”
Let’s be clear: the target Matt Hancock set out was not to increase capacity to 100,000 tests a day, it was to actually do those tests.
The target was set out in writing at the time and is still available on the UK government website:
Note the use of the words “carry out”.
At the press conference when the target was first announced on April 2, Mr Hancock said: “I am now setting the goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month. That is the goal and I am determined that we will get there.”
The health secretary did not use the word “capacity” in relation to this target at the time.
He also made it clear from the outset that hitting 100,000 tests a day was not contingent on Britain developing mass antibody testing.
This is something that has not materialized, as the accuracy of these blood tests has been lower than hoped. But the lack of antibody testing was priced in when Mr Hancock made the announcement.
The UK government has already missed one target on testing. On March 18 another government press release promised 25,000 tests a day “within four weeks”.
The press release was vaguely worded, variously promising 25,000 tests a day, tests of 25,000 patients a day (not the same thing, as we have seen) and “increased capacity”.
“Within four weeks” implied a deadline of April 15, but testing is still below 25,000 a day now, a week after that deadline.
In statements on April 2 and 3 Mr Hancock also talked about having the capacity to do 3,500 tests a week using an antibody test developed by Public Health England at Porton Down.
The plan was always for this strand of testing – which Mr Hancock refers to as Pillar 4 of his five-pillar testing programme – to test relatively small groups of people.
Government documents go further, saying ministers expected to be able to test up to 5,000 samples a week during April.
It’s clear that testing carried out under this “pillar” has come in under the claimed capacity. To date, fewer than 5,000 tests have been carried out in total over at least three weeks of testing.
It’s also worth remembering that even if the target of 100,000 tests a day is hit over the next eight days, Boris Johnson said last month that he hoped to see daily testing hit 250,000 a day, though he did not put a date on this aim.