Matt Hancock, the UK’s Health Secretary, proudly announced on Friday that the country had hit an ambitious coronavirus testing target that it had set itself at the beginning of the month.
On April 2, after weeks of criticism that the UK was lagging behind its European counterparts like Germany on testing, Hancock told the nation that he was “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.”
Today, Hancock said from that same podium that the UK had beaten that goal by more than 22,000.
Striking an upbeat tone, Hancock said: “I knew it was an audacious goal, but we needed an audacious goal.” Critics might point out that the goal wasn’t the only thing to come out of Hancock’s mouth that could be called audacious. In the numbers counted, thousands of tests have been sent out to members of the public, but not necessarily returned.
Jonathon Ashworth, the opposition Labour party’s shadow health secretary, has already issued a statement, accusing the government of fiddling the numbers. “Increasing testing is an important milestone. But many would have expected the 100,000 promise to have been met by actually carrying out testing, not simply because 39,000 kits had been mailed out.”
The issue of testing didn’t need to become so political.
When the UK gave in to pressure to reverse its March 12 decisions to abandon mass community testing on April 2, it didn’t need to set itself a specific target or a specific deadline. Indeed, it seems very unlikely that any scientific or medical advice would have produced a round number like 100,000 or a neat date such as the end of a month. These promises were based on political choices made by the government and it is entirely reasonable that critics expected the target to be met.
It is, however, also reasonable for critics to point out that the date and the number of tests carried out is entirely arbitrary and what really matters is a coherent purpose for those tests being carried out — such as rolling out a contact tracing program.
So, while the UK government can be proud of its extraordinary expansion of testing in such a short period of time — and no one can deny that more testing is undeniably a positive thing — it’s reasonable that critics would find any backslapping for simply keeping its own promise somewhat unedifying.