A new advertising campaign will urge the public to take up free NHS coronavirus tests following concerns within government that some minority ethnic Britons wrongly believe they have to pay for the service.
Amid growing fears of a second spike of the disease, NHS Test and Trace launched the TV and online publicity drive to encourage everyone to get a test as soon as they get symptoms.
The move came alongside a new target to expand daily testing capacity to 150,000 by the end of August and as Boris Johnson said that Britons “don’t delude ourselves that somehow we are out of the woods”.
The fresh push to get more people tested came as new statistics showed that the numbers of positive cases has increased for the second week running across the UK, ending months of falls.
The latest NHS Test and Trace statistics showed that for July 16 to 22 the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 was 4,128, up from 3,953 the previous week and 3,818 the week before that.
The advertising campaign follows unease within government that the UK’s fall in cases has levelled off and it could be heading for a fresh spike.
On Thursday, the compulsory self-isolation period for people with symptoms of Covid-19 has been extended from one week to 10 days with immediate effect, the UK’s chief medical officers announced.
Government insiders confirmed that only about 35% of total symptomatic cases were being tested and contacted, according to data from the Office of National Statistics.
Part of the reason for the low take-up of free tests was the perception that only NHS and care workers were eligible, but a significant proportion stems from perceptions among some Asian communities that the test would cost money.
HuffPost UK understands that the NHS has had feedback from community groups that the fear stems from relatives overseas being charged a fee for covid tests and that particularly older minority ethnic people are not clear that healthcare is free in the UK.
In recent weeks, 40% of confirmed coronavirus cases were in people from Asian backgrounds.
The government has been working with council chiefs in Leicester, Blackburn, Oldham and Rochdale to improve translation services for people with English as a second language.
But earlier this week the Doctors for the World charity joined town halls in criticising the “absolute lack” of communication from Whitehall on the issue.
An online contact tracing platform is only available in English, though this may change in future,
NHS Test and Trace said its aim was to increase public awareness of the NHS Test and Trace service to 80% by October to increase the number of people who come forward.
The government announced its 60-second ‘Let’s Get Testing – Let’s Get Back’ TV advert along with plans to make it easier to access tests, with 500 mobile testing sites in English towns and cities now planned for the end of October.
The new 150,000 tests a day capacity target by September 1 is a stepping stone towards Boris Johnson’s 500,000 daily target for October 31.
Health secretary Matt Hancock set a target of 100,000 actual tests conducted per day by the end of April. The figure was achieved but the government faced criticism from the statistics watchdog that it had included swab kits posted out rather than returned.
The current capacity for testing as of July 26 was 127,500 for so-called ‘Pillar 2’ tests, those done in the community such as through mobile test units and regional test centres. ‘Pillar 1’ tests, done in NHS hospitals for those with a clinical need and health and care workers, have a capacity of 80,985.
Greater laboratory capacity in the NHS and with private sector firms will be used, and the hope is that the increase will allow flexibility to do more asymptomatic tests. At present companies with workers at higher risk of the disease, such as taxi drivers and cleaners, are trialling the regular testing.
Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, earlier this month described herself as “the Grinch of Covid” in that she wants the number of people testing positive to increase if that shows the system was capturing more of the population.
Harding said: “The NHS Test and Trace service is a vital part of enabling us to get back to safely doing the normal things we love, and will become ever more important as we approach winter.
“By working in partnership with local public health and local authority teams we are already helping stop the spread of coronavirus across England, by reaching over 200,000 people who may have been at risk of passing it on.
“I urge everybody to get a free test as soon as you experience coronavirus symptoms and to follow the advice you’re given if you are contacted by the service. If we all continue to play our part, then together we can stop the spread of this virus.”
The test and trace system showed progress in that 81.4% of cases referred to the service were reached, up from 79.7% the previous week.
But the percentage of “close contacts” - defined as anyone within 2 metres for more than 15 minutes - then reached had fallen week on week to
75.1% from 78.4%.
Since the launch of Test and Trace, 184,703 close contacts of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 have been reached through the tracing system and asked to self-isolate.
Speaking on a visit to Yorkshire, the prime minister - who only recently predicted life would get back to normal by Christmas - struck a newly worried tone.
“It is absolutely vital as a country that we continue to keep our focus and our discipline and that we don’t delude ourselves that somehow we are out of the woods or that this is all over, because it isn’t all over”.