Attacks on the government’s coronavirus testing boss are “unseemly and unjustified”, Boris Johnson has said.
The prime minister defended Dido Harding following her claim no-one could have predicted the big rise in demand for COVID-19 tests following most schools reopening.
He denied losing control of the system but was told by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer “pretending there isn’t a problem is part of the problem”.
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Their fiery exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions came after some residents in coronavirus hotspots complained they could not get a test or were being told to travel hundreds of miles to receive one.
Baroness Harding, a Tory peer who was picked to chair the new National Institute for Health Protection, last week denied not preparing enough for a second spike of infections over the summer.
But she has faced criticism from opposition parties and even the Tory chair of the Commons Science Committee, Greg Clark, who said it was “dispiriting” more had not been done to prepare for “circumstances which are entirely predictable”.
Sir Keir raised the issue in parliament, asking if the problem was unforeseeable or if the blame should be levelled at people with no COVID-19 symptoms trying to get a test – as the health secretary has previously suggested.
Mr Johnson hit back, claiming “the continual attacks on Dido Harding are unseemly and unjustified”.
“I think her teams have done an outstanding job in recruiting people from a standing start,” he said.
“This is not for a moment to deny the anxiety of those who want tests, which I readily accept.
“Of course we would love to have much more testing instantly.”
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He claimed the UK is testing more people than any other European country and repeated a pledge to increase capacity to 500,000 a day by the end of October.
“What I frankly want to hear is more of the spirit of togetherness that we had yesterday,” he added, following the announcement of fresh new restrictions welcomed by Labour.
Sir Keir told him: “My complaint is not with the NHS, it’s with the government.
“My wife works for the NHS, my mother worked for the NHS, my sister works for the NHS so I’m not going to take lectures from the prime minister on supporting the NHS.”
He repeated that when schools reopened the “inevitable happened” and children got bugs, colds and flus but with “no effective system in place”, they and their contacts all have to isolate until they can get a coronavirus test.
“How on earth did we get into this mess?” Sir Keir questioned.
In response, Mr Johnson told him there is an “exceptionally small risk to children of primary and secondary school age from this disease”.