At an online press briefing on Thursday, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said he thought the backlog was about 100,000.
Later in the afternoon, the acting director general of the Department of Health, Anban Pillay, told a joint meeting of both Houses of Parliament’s health committees that the backlog was 80,000.
Minutes later, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said: “At the moment, the backlog is about 30,000 specimens.”
Mkhize usually releases statements containing daily statistics in the early evening, between 20:00 and 22:00.
But shortly after midnight, he sent out a statement.
It read: “The acting director general was indeed correct when he stated that the backlog was around 80,000. This is to confirm that the exact figure of specimens that have not been processed is 96,480 as at 25 May 2020.”
The minister also made reference to the backlog of tests that had not been allocated and stated that the figure of 30 00 was in reference to the backlog of tests done but which remained unknown as depicted in the table entitled “Covid-19 indicators by province”.
The statement said the table illustrated the number of tests conducted versus the specimens collected, but not yet processed, which fluctuated daily.
The table showed a figure of 29,948, with the following explanation in the statement: “As at 27 May 2020, 634,996 tests had been conducted and of those a total of 29,948 tests reflects a backlog of unallocated tests.
This is due to the lack of sufficient data recorded and this requires the NICD (National Institute for Communicable Diseases) to verify each test prior to allocating it to the province.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Mkhize said: “At the moment the backlog is around 30,000 specimen, what we clear every now and then when we find additional supplies.”
At the meeting, EFF MP Naledi Chirwa pointed to the three different figures and asked for clarification.
Mkhize didn’t provide the explanation contained in the midnight statement.
He said: “We will then recheck those figures because the figures I have are slightly different. So we will find out where the issues are.
“But the fact that there is a backlog, we admit it. But the issue of how much backlog is, is always a moving target because at a certain point we clear them and of course they rise again and we have to reconcile them. It depends on which date you’re counting from. So I will look at that.”
About Winde’s 100,000, which was closer to the actual figure of 96,480 than Pillay’s 80 000, Mkhize said: “I’m not quite sure where this figure comes from.”
News24 reported on Friday morning that the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), which manages government laboratories, refused to divulge detailed testing data, particularly sample collection and delivery data, amid unexplained spikes and drops in daily testing numbers this week.
The statement also provided a provincial breakdown of the backlog on 25 May.
The Eastern Cape has a backlog 22,802, the Free State 8,800, Gauteng 24,076, KwaZulu-Natal 22,802 and the Western Cape 18,000.
Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the North West and the Northern Cape do not have backlogs.
The midnight statement said the backlog challenge was caused the limited availability of test kits globally.
“It must be acknowledged that this capacity issue is a global challenge.
“It is on this basis that, whilst specimens to test for Covid-19 are being collected from the community screening campaign, priority is being given to processing specimens that are received from patients who are admitted in hospital and healthcare workers.”