A worker collects tests at a testing centre
Turnround times for the majority of tests are taking twice as long as they did in early July © Oli Scarff/AFP

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The severe weaknesses of England’s coronavirus testing system have been exposed by data showing a sharp reduction in the number of people receiving positive results quickly.

The revelation came as prime minister Boris Johnson admitted to failings in the testing system but warned people to stick to government guidance on coronavirus, particularly on the “rule of six” limiting the size of gatherings, because a second lockdown would be “disastrous” for the economy.

At the start of September, before schools reopened, 63 per cent of people in England who tested positive received their results by the end of the day after they had taken the test, according to data from the government’s Covid-19 dashboard.

By Tuesday that figure had dropped to just 8 per cent.

Swift processing of test results is key to stopping the spread of the virus because people who test positive can immediately quarantine themselves, reducing the likelihood of their infecting others.

The collapse in the speed of testing, which was first reported by statistician Chris Drake, comes as Mr Johnson acknowledged the government did not have enough capacity to match the recent “accelerated” demand for tests.

On Tuesday, half of those receiving a positive result in England had taken the test at least three days earlier. For a quarter of the cases, the results took four days or more to come.

Delays are likely to increase further after the government’s decision to prioritise testing for NHS workers, patients and those in care homes.

On Wednesday, Mr Johnson told the House of Commons liaison committee of senior MPs: “We don’t have enough testing capacity now because in an ideal world I would like to test absolutely everybody that wants a test immediately.”

He insisted capacity “will be up at 500,000 by the end of October” but declined to say whether this would be sufficient during the winter.

“We are doing our level best to supply more tests, to speed the process up and turn it round faster and to ensure that people get tests as close as possible to where they want them.”

Mr Johnson stressed the public should instead accept the tighter restrictions on gatherings and adjust their lifestyles. “When I see people saying, arguing against the rule of six or saying that the government is coming in too hard on individual liberties and so on — I totally understand that and I sympathise with that, but we must, we must must defeat this disease.”

The alternative would be a second lockdown, which the prime minister described as “wrong” for the country. “And can we afford it? I very much doubt that the financial consequences would be anything but disastrous.”

Column chart of (%) showing Positive coronavirus test results received on the day  the test was taken or the day after

Earlier, during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, he defended the government’s record, arguing that the majority of people were able to access tests. 

“Eighty-nine per cent of those who have tests — in-person tests — get them the next day and we are working very fast to turn around all the test requests that we get,” he said.

The widening gap between the date positive results were reported publicly and the dates the tests were taken might be caused by increased reporting delays to the government's dashboard. But the Department of Health did not say there were such problems.

It said the latest figures from NHS Test and Trace also showed a much faster turnround time for “in-person” tests.

The NHS figures, however, are out of date. They relate to the week ending September 2, when the official data on positive tests also showed the system working well. These statistics quoted by Mr Johnson also showed that the majority of tests were not “in-person” and the proportion of people getting tests the next day was just 44 per cent of all coronavirus tests in that week.

Matt Hancock, health secretary, admitted on Tuesday that the testing system faced “operational challenges” which would take “weeks” to resolve.

The NHS admitted last week that turnround times for the majority of tests, which are taken at satellite testing centres or via home-delivered kits, were “getting longer” and took on average 80 hours to deliver a result — double the time in early July.

Mr Hancock conceded there was a shortage of tests, that the government was having to prioritise those working in the health system and that members of the public often had to travel miles to be tested.

This is now showing up in the daily data released by the government on caseloads, which are increasingly being reported as positive samples taken from many days before being reported.

Meanwhile, Liverpool’s mayor said he expected tighter restrictions to be imposed on the city after the number of cases leapt more than fivefold in the last fortnight to over 100 per 100,000 people. Joe Anderson said Liverpool and nearby boroughs such as Knowsley, St Helens and Warrington were, from Friday, likely to join places such as Bradford, Birmingham and Manchester with a ban on household mixing.

Mr Anderson said: “We fully expect to be affected by lockdown measures, having gone over the 100 cases per 100,000 government threshold. We think this could well be part of a wider North West lockdown, because you can see cases are rising across the whole region.

“We think this could involve a ban on care home visits, with vulnerable people perhaps being told to shield again.”

Local leaders say the North West has 24 per cent of England’s Covid-19 cases but only about 15 per cent of the national testing capacity.

When challenged at prime minister’s questions by Labour’s Angela Rayner on care worker pay and testing capacity within the sector, Mr Johnson said the government was working hard to protect care home residents and staff. 

“We are concerned about the rates of infections within care homes. Clearly they have come down massively since we introduced the £600m care home action plan. Tomorrow we will be announcing a further winter care home action plan,” he said.

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