The government appears confident of reaching the goal by 31 October, with the latest data from the Department for Health indicating that there is currently capacity for over 480,000 tests a day, with 347,000 actually being processed.
The figures have shown an eleventh-hour surge in testing capacity – last Sunday the UK’s total capacity stood at nearly 378,000 tests – and a test-and-trace source told The Independent: “We are on track to reach the 500k target.”
But with issues facing the government’s test and trace programme, and a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalisations, experts on the Independent Sage group dismissed the target on Friday as they reiterated calls for a circuit-break national lockdown.
Professor Gabriel Scally, a member of the group that was set up to parallel the government’s official Scientific Advisory Body for Emergencies (Sage), suggested that the target was a distraction “in the absence of a strategy” to tackle the virus.
Prof Scally, who is the president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, said: “The director-general of WHO [World Health Organisation] earlier in the pandemic said ‘test, test, test’ and he didn’t really mean just creating tests in abstract laboratories and not applying them.
“It was actually part of an organised programme where you find people and you get help and get tested and then you do the tracing and the isolation and the support.
He added: “The government seems to have forgotten all of that and seems to be regarding testing capacity and tests as something like fairy dust that we’re going to sprinkle liberally over the country and it’s going to make the virus disappear.
“It isn’t like that and this is not going to work unless it’s within a really organised system. One of the current themes is an absence of strategy or a plan.
“We get these sporadic, great ideas launched by the prime minister or some of his acolytes and they are meaningless. They are distractions and an attempt to get headlines, and they are a distraction from doing what they need to do, which is getting a strategy and plan in place and one that is workable and will help us deal with the virus.”
A second member of Independent Sage, Deenan Pillay, who is a professor of virology at University College London and a former member of the government’s official Sage, said: “Why talk about a capacity for something? Either we’re testing people and we’re doing X number of tests, or we’re not.
“The capacity is a sleight of hand really when it comes to talking up the response,” he added. “Capacity for testing doesn’t speak at all to that public health outcome we wish for.”