The UK government is facing mounting anger over coronavirus testing shortages, just as concerns rise over a spike in infections in the lead up to winter.
Health and education leaders, scientists and opposition politicians are warning of the consequences of a testing system for coronavirus still chronically unable to meet the demands being placed on it.
There have been widespread complaints about a lack of tests available, and the long distances some people are being expected to travel to take them.
Matt Hancock admitted on Tuesday that “operational challenges” with England’s coronavirus testing system could take “weeks” to resolve as the government tried to fend off criticism for the faltering programme.
The health secretary also conceded that the government was having to “prioritise” particular groups because of the shortages.
Officials later said that patients in hospital, care home residents and those with potential Covid-19 symptoms would be at the front of the queue.
Separately, a senior government official warned that increasing numbers of cases and hospital admissions would continue to be a problem for six months.
Official data have indicated that the UK’s current testing capacity stands at 374,917, and under plans announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week, the government hopes to reach 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.
When Dido Harding launched the NHS test and trace system at the end of May, she said: “We will have something that’s really ready to do the job we need it to do as we head into autumn and winter.”
Robert Buckland, justice secretary, on Wednesday partly blamed bottlenecks in testing laboratories for the problems in the UK testing regime.
“Laboratory capacity has been an issue, we are working our way through that,” he told Sky News. “We’re increasing the number of test centres, we’ve got 400 test centres, getting it up to 500 but clearly there are still real challenges.”
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Health department documents leaked to the Sunday Times showed a backlog of 185,000 tests waiting to be processed on Friday, with some tests being sent to Italy and Germany for analysis.
Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, described the testing delays as “completely unacceptable”.
Writing on Twitter, Sir Lindsay said: “I am receiving numerous complaints from residents unable to book a test after displaying Covid symptoms. This is completely unacceptable and totally undermines track and trace [government programme] so I have raised my concerns with ministers to push for action to be taken as a matter of urgency.”
Keir Starmer also criticised the testing system. The Labour leader, who has been self-isolating since Monday after a member of his household displayed “possible symptoms of the coronavirus”, said he was only able to get a test due to his wife’s job within the NHS.
“For thousands of people across the country it’s a very different story,” he said. “And after six months of this pandemic, that’s completely unacceptable. Whatever Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock might say: It’s not the British people that are to blame for these mistakes. It isn’t civil servants, care home workers or mutant algorithms. It’s this government.”
Why have things gone so wrong?
This month, Sarah-Jane Marsh, director of testing at NHS test and trace, apologised for the delays, attributing them to “laboratory processing” being a “critical pinch point”.
Chris Ham, co-chair of the NHS Assembly, an advisory body to the NHS, and a non-executive director at the Royal Free London Hospitals Foundation Trust, pointed to the “rising demand for tests relative to available capacity”, particularly since schools had reopened.
He also said that labs were struggling to acquire reagents to carry out the necessary analyses and that some facilities also appeared to be having difficulties in securing enough staff with the right skills.
While Mr Hancock admitted that problems in laboratories were causing delays in the testing system, the health secretary has not explained how he intends to increase both testing capacity and the speed with which results are delivered, beyond “bringing in more machines”.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said NHS trusts were “working in the dark”.
“They don’t know why these shortages are occurring, how long they are likely to last, how geographically widespread they are likely to be and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests”.
What does this mean for schools?
Headteachers said full or partial school closures would be inevitable if the problems continue. According to Department for Education statistics, 99 per cent of schools were open last week but attendance was 88 per cent.
National guidance requires any child with symptoms to isolate while they are waiting for a test. Only when a child or staff member tests positive will their close contacts be required to isolate too. Slow testing means children are stuck at home for longer than necessary and delays schools acting to stop potential spread.
The Association of School and College Leaders, a union, last week received hundreds of reports from headteachers who were struggling to obtain tests for children, and said education was being disrupted as a result.
One headteacher surveyed by the union said 10 of his pupils with symptoms were isolating at home and none had been able to get tests within seven days. “Potentially I could have a number of positive cases linked to my school and not know it,” he said.
How will the testing problems affect the NHS?
Staff absences are an even bigger worry. Schools report teachers being stuck at home for days as they await tests and are struggling to recruit supply teachers. This is leading to shortages that may make it unsafe to open to all year groups.
The danger for the NHS is that staff will be forced to isolate at home because they or a family member has symptoms, creating staffing gaps just as the health service is trying to restore services halted during the pandemic and prepare for a feared autumn surge in cases.
Highlighting how widespread the problems are, Mr Hopson said trust leaders from Bristol, Leeds and London had all raised concern over the weekend about the lack of testing availability leading to greater levels of staff absence.
Trusts were also concerned that planned hospital treatment could be delayed because patients were unable to get tested. “We’re aware of a small number of examples of patients being unable to get such tests, which cuts across trusts’ ability to restore services in the way they have been asked to do,” he said.
Andrew Molodynski, a psychiatrist in Oxfordshire who also represents consultants for the British Medical Association, the main doctors’ union, said that up to two weeks ago he and his colleagues had been getting fortnightly tests, with an antibody test every six weeks. The aim had been to identify asymptomatic cases. This service had abruptly stopped, however, without a proper explanation,
There are reports that hospitals are already starting to see an influx of people with symptoms of flu and rhinovirus, further straining services and testing capacity.
Dr Molodynski said that although Covid-19 symptoms differed from those of a regular cold, “for most people it can be difficult to tell the difference so one of the problems we’re experiencing is lots of people with any kind of upper respiratory problem will probably assume they might have Covid and want to have a test”.
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