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30 April 2020

The real question to ask about the government missing its 100,000 tests a day target

We don’t know whether the target matters, because we don’t know what the government’s overall aim is.  

By Stephen Bush

Does it matter that the government is likely to fall short of its target of 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day? Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, has conceded that the target will be missed. 

The reality, of course, is that the number exists a) because it is reassuringly large and b) because the government was having a bad news cycle and needed to announce something. We don’t know whether it matters, because we don’t know what the government’s overall aim is. We have a pretty good idea that the United Kingdom’s four governments have achieved enough testing capacity to avoid hospitals becoming vectors of infection. But they don’t have enough to move towards widespread test and trace, let alone the necessary additional infrastructure.

We now have a pretty good idea that the government is heading in that direction, as indeed is most of the world. That’s also what today’s FT scoop, which reports that Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, is preparing workplace-by-workplace guidance for how businesses can return to work safely, suggests.

But for now, that decision remains implicit rather than explicit – so all we can say is that the government has missed its target, because we have no clear idea what they wanted to do with 100,000 tests a day, other than to conduct them.

The reason why targets are useful is that they help drive improvements, both by identifying weaknesses at the top of government and further down the chain. And that’s why the really important question about the 100,000 tests a day target is: what has the government learnt, and how has it improved, having spent a month trying and likely failing to hit this target?

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