Britain’s testing crisis could take weeks to resolve, the health secretary has admitted as it emerged that Covid tests from hospitals are being deployed for use in the community to plug holes in the system.
People with Covid symptoms in Rochdale, one of the worst-hit parts of the country, have been turning up at A&E hospital departments and calling 111 desperately seeking tests, the council’s chief executive said.
In Bolton, which was confirmed to have one of the highest infection rates in Europe outside of Spain after a sharp rise in cases, the chair of the local NHS foundation trust, Prof Donna Hall, also reported a “very busy” emergency department “as poorly people unable to get a test come to us for help”.
She added: “This is why it’s so important to have a functioning testing and tracing system. One day of delays can cause hundreds more infections. This is a very worrying situation for us in Bolton.”
With 196 cases for every 100,000 people, the Greater Manchester town has a slightly higher rate of cases than the French city of Marseille, where authorities announced strict measures on Monday following a “exponential curve” in cases. Across the UK, 3,105 cases and 27 deaths were reported on Tuesday, with 972 people in hospital, up from 575 a week earlier.
The surge in coronavirus cases and the return of schools has led to increased testing demand, with requests from NHS workers up 50% in two weeks. At the same time, NHS organisations are trying to make up for shortfalls among other key workers and in care homes by using vans to divert tests from hospitals, the Guardian has learned.
Following days of rising public anger at the difficulty of getting tests – even for sick people with Covid symptoms – Matt Hancock told parliament there were “operational challenges” and said problems could take weeks to resolve.
The health secretary announced new priorities for the available testing capacity and again said the surge in demand had been partly driven by people without symptoms applying for tests. He said people with acute clinical need and those in social care settings would now be first in the queue.
“As demand has risen, so we are having to prioritise once again and I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation,” he told the Commons. “They are not always comfortable, but they are important.” Labour accused the government of “losing control of the virus”.
NHS authorities in Hampshire said they are responding to the problems with a new initiative using vans to send tests to community care workers unable to access them online, meaning they could be off work unnecessarily. The scheme led by NHS West Hampshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), but which could be replicated, means taking tests from the so-called pillar 1 programme in NHS hospitals.
The CCG acted after it concluded the government’s pillar 2 community testing system “isn’t working at present for symptomatic care workers, which is impacting people’s ability to work”.
“We are determined to ensure that care home staff are able to access Covid-19 testing as quickly as possible,” said Mike Fulford, chief operating officer. “This is essential to ensure that staff are able to protect their own health, and to continue their work to protect the health of others.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if other CCGs took this supportive action,” said Louise Patten, chief executive of NHS Clinical Commissioners. “It is vital that community nurses, GPs and care home staff have prompt access to testing and results.”
Dr Layla McCay, director at the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said some hospital trusts had also started offering priority testing for the local NHS workforce and this could be extended. “Our members are telling us that lack of access to testing for staff is a major barrier to them delivering services and achieving targets set to restore services,” she said.
Hospital trusts are increasing testing capacity at their own laboratories and giving their own staff and families priority.
But Steve Rumbelow, the chief executive of Rochdale council, said members of the public with coronavirus symptoms had been turning up at hospitals seeking tests, placing further pressure on the NHS. “The system is clearly in meltdown,” Rumbelow said. “It’s chaotic. Demand is being managed in the most ham-fisted way you could possibly imagine, essentially by turning it off and on again.”
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, told parliament that a mobile testing centre failed to turn up in Bolton at the weekend. Hundreds queued for five hours for a test in Bury, and a father with a sick child in Walsall travelled 76 miles to an appointment in Wales to find on arrival that tests had run out, he said.
Ashworth said: “The prime minister promised us whack-a-mole but instead his mallet is broken. The secretary of state is losing control of this virus. He needs to fix testing now.”
In response, Hancock said capacity for testing was at a record high and that the government had processed 9,278 pillar 2 tests in the top 10 worst-hit areas on Monday. Boris Johnson’s spokesman also gave a robust defence of the system on Tuesday, denying that tests were impossible to obtain in virus hotspots. “It’s wrong to say that testing is not available in these areas,” he said.
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