Britain has been secretly flying tens of thousands of coronavirus tests to America as it struggles to lift the daily testing rate over 100,000 a day in the UK, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose.
The Department of Health admitted last night that 50,000 test samples were sent to the US last week as problems were reported in laboratories in the UK. The samples were airlifted across the Atlantic in chartered flights from Stansted airport.
The Government insisted that “all results will be returned to patients as quickly as possible”.
The UK has failed to hit the hundred thousand a day target for testing for each of the past seven days, and only hit the 100,000 a day target by the end of last month by mailing 40,000 testing kits to people at home.
The Government admitted on Thursday that there had been a problem in a lab in Northern Ireland, but made no reference to shipping tens of thousands of tests to America.
Many people are still waiting for their results, throwing their lives into turmoil. Questions will be asked about why the Government has not disclosed the samples airlift to the US before.
A Department of Health source said: “We were able to send approximately 50,000 test samples to a US laboratory earlier this week.
“Validation of the results will be completed in the UK, and all results will be returned to patients as quickly as possible.”
The Sunday Telegraph understands that the samples are being processed at a university laboratory in the southern United States.
There have been reports of long delays in getting results back to people who have been tested but it is not known if this is because tests are being sent to the US.
The department source added: “Delays in the system this week arose as a result of operational issues in our lab network.
“We have worked to resolve these issues and capacity is rapidly being restored.
“It is not surprising when a system is brand new that there will be some teething problems in the first weeks of operation.
“It is important not to draw too many conclusions from a few days’ worth of data.
“Over one million people have now been tested in the UK and the vast majority report no issues with the process.”
Officials were forced onto the backfoot when daily testing figures slumped to fewer than 70,000 in the 24 hours to 9am on Wednesday, well below the 100,000 daily target set by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Tests have only cleared the 100,000 daily target on two occasions since the start of the crisis.
Speaking at the daily briefing on Saturday Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England said that he expected there to be fluctuations in the number of daily coronavirus tests being carried out.
He said: “We are now really at a high plateau, in the region of 100,000 tests per day.
“There is some fluctuation, and quite frankly I expect there to be some fluctuation on a day-to-day basis.
“I don’t think we can read too much into day-to-day variations, but the macro-picture is this is now at a much, much higher level than it ever was at the beginning of this crisis.”
Government sources said there had been a problem with a machine at a commercial laboratory run by private firm Randox in Northern Ireland, which had now been rectified. Randox said its staff were “working diligently to process all tests in a timely manner”.
Last week Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, set an ambitious new 200,000 daily coronavirus testing target and vowed to “go even higher” to contain the disease.
One testing source said that the US university was being used to manage “surge capacity” in the UK as testing is ramped up.
One said: “They have sent far fewer than they thought they would because their capacity is doing really well. They will get to 200,000 a day – they will not do it in four weeks but they will get there.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “The expansion of the UK’s coronavirus testing network has involved setting up an entirely new ‘Lighthouse’ lab network to process test swabs.
“When problems arise, we have contingencies in place which include creating extra temporary capacity for our labs or sending swabs abroad to partner labs for completion. Of course, our partner labs must match our high standards.”