The number of rapid COVID-19 tests being carried out in England fell to just over five million per week at the start of May, despite a government campaign calling on members of the public to test themselves twice weekly at home.
Official data shows that almost 5.1 million so-called lateral flow tests were conducted in the week to May 12, down from a high of 7.6 million in the week to March 17 when schools reopened after the winter lockdown. The rapid test total has fallen for three weeks in a row in England, which has a total population of about 56 million people.
Boris Johnson’s government has long pointed to mass testing as the key to the UK getting back to normal, after suffering one of the worst death tolls from coronavirus in the world.
The ability to quickly identify outbreaks of the virus and keep it under control is seen as fundamental to the UK’s economic recovery, alongside a vaccination program that aims to deliver at least one dose to every adult by the end of July.
But the UK’s test-and-trace program, which is set to cost 37 billion pounds over two years, has repeatedly faced criticism for failing to deliver on key metrics.
Lateral flow tests, which give results in under 30 minutes, are offered to people who don’t have symptoms of coronavirus to check if they are infected. They aim to detect cases fast and ensure those people isolate immediately.
Johnson launched a high-profile campaign last month urging the public to take tests twice a week, with everyone now able to order them free through the post. Staff at schools, nurseries and elderly care homes have had access to regular rapid testing for months, and companies have also been able to order tests for their employees.
The opposition Labour Party said the figures were concerning. “Testing and contact tracing are vital tools in controlling the spread of COVID and have become even more important as cases of the Indian variant rise,” shadow health minister Justin Madders said in a statement.
“The fall in lateral flow tests should be concerning ministers, particularly as the number of tests completed should be rising as more aspects of society begin to reopen again.”