The UK government has said it will no longer publish data on the number of individual people being tested for coronavirus, after five weeks of failing to release such daily statistics.
Downing Street said the decision had been taken because figures only count people having their first Covid-19 test, and as NHS and care staff can now often have regular tests, this could skew the statistics.
On 18 May, Matt Hancock announced coronavirus testing is being extended in the UK to anyone over the age of five with symptoms.
Before then, eligibility had been limited to a series of groups including key workers, those aged over 65, people who could not work from home, or people who lived with someone from one of these groups.
Those with symptoms can now use the gov.uk website to book home test kits or appointments at drive-through centres across the country.
However, it drew criticism from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who accused ministers of “dodging scrutiny” and covering up a failure to meet targets.
The government still publishes daily figures for the number of tests carried out, and total testing capacity, but has not released a number for how many individual were tested since 22 May. At the time, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it had been “temporarily paused”.
On Monday, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the DHSC had made this permanent, and would only publish figures for the number of tests.
“This is because the daily people-tested statistic only counts new people being tested,” he said. “For example, someone who is tested in February and then tested again this month will only be counted once.
“Considering hospital and care home staff are now being tested on a regular basis, we don’t think this statistic would be an accurate reflection of the amount of daily testing that is taking place.”
Justin Madders, the shadow health minister, said the situation was “an absolute shambles”. He said: “It seems that the real reason why the government stopped issuing figures for the number of people tested each day is because they never hit their 100,000 people a day target and they were too embarrassed to admit it.
“It is clear that ministers are losing control over the testing regime and are failing to not only keep track of the tests but to ensure the results are returned swiftly.”
Layla Moran, the Lib Dem MP who is heading a cross-party group seeking an independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, said such data was “vital to ensure decision-makers are held to account”.
She said: “First the government cancelled the daily press conferences, now they’ve stopped publishing the numbers of people who’ve actually been tested. It seems that at every stage, ministers are dodging scrutiny and covering up for their own failures.”
The government has made a series of pledges on testing over the period of the pandemic, including a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, and then at least 200,000 tests a day by the start of June. However, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, later said the latter figure would be judged against the capacity for tests, not the number conducted.
The latest daily figures show that in the 24 hours to 9am on Sunday, 164,849 tests had been provided, with the testing capacity for the day at 294,258. These figures cover tests to see if people have coronavirus currently, as opposed to antibody tests which detect whether someone had Covid-19 in the past.