England’s testing fiasco first emerged three weeks ago when the government ran out of swabs after teachers and children returned to school, universities re-opened and parents dashed back to offices, a top expert has claimed as the crisis continues to unfold.
Dr Duncan Robertson, a policy analyst at Loughborough University, spotted that on-line booking was taken off-line in badly-hit areas of the country ‘way back in late August’ to ‘throttle demand’. He condemned No 10’s failure to ramp up capacity over the summer.
He revealed that Pillar 2 capacity — tests given to the public — was exceeded on August 23 and ‘still hasn’t been fixed’. And data shows the capacity for Pillar 4 swabs — ones given out in surveillance schemes to track the crisis — has been ‘vastly’ surpassed over the past month.
In a bid to resolve the mess and suppress demand, Whitehall sources have claimed that Downing Street has rolled back its advertising campaign which saw posters and TV advertisements urging people who have symptoms of the virus to get a test. Officials now estimate around a quarter of people who get swabbed are not eligible.
It comes as it was revealed that dozens of residents with tell-tale Covid-19 symptoms in Birmingham — which has one of the worst infection rates in the country — were yesterday sent to a deserted car park to get swabbed, after many battled online for hours to get booked for a test.
Parents, teachers and children face being put to the back of the queue for Covid tests as Matt Hancock admitted yesterday swabs will have to be rationed. The Health Secretary said a ‘priority list’ would ensure care homes and hospitals have enough, averting problems with staffing and the need to cancel operations.
But it comes at the expense of millions of others, with warnings issued that the UK was being put into ‘lockdown by default’ due to the Government’s abject failure to get ready for winter despite the pandemic beginning six months ago.
Hundreds of schools have been partially or completely closed because of coronavirus cases — both proven and suspected — leading to fears of a domino effect, resulting in parents not being able to go to work and the return of empty offices.
Here’s how Britain’s testing fiasco is unfolding:
- Government’s ‘Moonshot’ testing scheme to administer 10million tests a day will be reached by counting separately up to 50 results from a single test, according to reports;
- People in some of Britain’s worst affected areas, including Bolton, Greater Manchester and Bradford, say they are unable to get a coronavirus test and, if they do get a booking, are asked to drive miles from their home;
- But residents in areas with smaller outbreaks, like Cambridge, said their testing sites were empty;
- Government hit its capacity for tests in late August, a top expert has claimed;
- There are mounting warnings that the testing fiasco could force Britain into ‘lockdown by default’ as ministers lose control of the virus;
- Britons face 10pm curfews and pubs may be forced to shut in two weeks amid spirralling coronavirus cases, reports claim;
- Coronavirus cases among people in their 40s and 50s rise by 90 per cent since the end of August, reveals Public Health England data;
Testing capacity for swabs was reached in England three weeks ago, Dr Duncan Robertson, a policy analyst at Loughborough university has said. Pictured above are people queuing for a test in Southend-on-Sea
Hundreds are seen queuing to receive a coronavirus test in Southend, London, yesterday
This graph shows capacity for coronavirus tests by demand. The capacity (red) is shown crossing over the demand (blue) in September
Dr Robertson revealed in a social media test that when a percentage of capacity used column is added to the Government’s coronavirus data, it becomes apparent that capacity was exceeded as far back as late August.
‘And there we have it, 23 August – capacity was exceeded in England exactly three weeks ago, and it still hasn’t been fixed,’ he said.
To deal with the mounting crisis the Government has rolled back testing in areas with major outbreaks of the virus in order to ‘throttle demand’.
Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen, one of the UK’s worst coronavirus hotspots with an infection rate around 61.8 cases per 100,000 said even at the height of intervention measures in late August test booking was ‘periodically taken off-line’ by authorities.
‘This makes locally sustaining adequate population testing levels very difficult,’ he said.
The Department for Health has also rolled back its posters and television adverts calling for those suffering from symptoms to get a coronavirus test, according to PoliticsHome.
It is part of a package of measures to ‘manage’ demand, which include changes to the booking website and the scaling back of appointments in low-prevalence areas.
Experts have raised concerns that this risks undermining efforts to control the virus across the UK, and could result in a ‘lockdown-by-default’ as the Government fails to get a handle on new cases and catch new outbreaks quickly.
Matt Hancock has previously blamed the testing crisis on people asking for a coronavirus test when they aren’t suffering symptoms of the virus – of a high temperature, continuous cough and/or loss of taste and smell.
He told the Commons yesterday that Britain’s so-called ‘world beating’ testing capacity ‘is at a record high’.
‘Yesterday, we processed 9,278 tests just in pillar 2 – so outside of the NHS testing capacity – in just those top 10 local authority areas,’ he said.
He added that the current hold-up was ‘less than a day’s capacity’ caused by ‘operational challenges’ in laboratories.
Figures suggest around 225,000 coronavirus tests are carried out in England everyday, with officials blaming a laboratoy ‘bottleneck’ for their inability to process the backlog and get more tests completed.
A further platoon of ‘lighthouse’ laboratories are set to open in the coming weeks to expand demand further as the Government aims to reach its Operation Moonshot target of 10million tests a day.
But this will be reached by adding up to 50 results from a single test to the total via a method known as pooled testing, reports the Daily Telegraph.
This sees as many as 50 swabs processed together. If no coronavirus is detected, they are all deemed not to have coronavirus. But if the virus is found then all of the swabs are re-tested. The operation is designed to speed up testing.
A woman uses an umbrella to shelter from the sun as she waits for a coronavirus test outside a community centre in Bury
Heath Secretary Matt Hancock speaking in the House of Commons, London
This morning the Government said it would begin a ‘prioritisation’ plan, details of which will be published in the coming days.
The scheme, to help manage the backlog that could take ‘weeks’ to clear, will see NHS workers and care home staff put to the front of the testing queue, while schoolchildren and parents are moved to the back.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said today the Government will explain their ‘prioritisation’ plan ‘over the next few days’.
‘It has to be the NHS first and then social care,’ he said.
‘And then I think we need to have a cascading system where we know where our priorities should be.
‘For me priorities should be for children in school and their parents to make sure that their lives are safe – and also that they’re not disrupted in the way that we’re seeing.’
The change raises the prospect of those suffering symptoms of the disease being denied a test, meaning they will not be able to tell recent contacts to self-isolate and posing the risk of the virus being further spread in the wider community.
There are up to 250,000 people waiting for test results in the UK, with the wait said to be longer than a week.
Massive queues built-up outside testing centres in Southend, Bury, Birmingham and Manchester yesterday as people rushed to access the remaining appointments.
And people needing a test in Birmingham, which is battling the UK’s second biggest outbreak of the virus, found the testing system sent them to an empty car park.
Parents urgently seeking tests for their ill children were among dozens who arrived at the ‘mobile site’ in Edgbaston yesterday, after believing they had managed to secure a sought-after coronavirus test – only to find it deserted.
NHS Signs advising people to ‘only enter with an appointment’ had been left stuck to the fence of the car park, but there was no sign of any staff to administer the swabs.
John Waterman, from Sutton Coldfield, told BirminghamLive he tried for hours to secure a test for his 11-year-old son after he came down with a cough. They were eventually given an appointment at the site but, more than two hours after their appointment was due to take place, they received a message to say the site would be ‘unavailable’.
Outraged residents in some parts of the country have complained about being forced to drive hundreds of miles for a coronavirus test.
Parents, teachers and children face being put to the back of the queue for Covid tests as Matt Hancock admitted yesterday swabs will have to be rationed.
In a humiliating climbdown, the Health Secretary said a ‘priority list’ would ensure environments such as care homes and hospitals would have enough.
However, it comes at the expense of millions of others, with warnings issued that the UK was being put into ‘lockdown by default’ as a result of the shortage of tests.
Hundreds of schools have been partially or completely closed because of coronavirus cases – both proven and suspected – leading to fears of a domino effect, resulting in parents not being able to go to work and the return of empty offices.
More than one in 10 children were not in classes last Thursday, figures show, as the National Governance Association claims the growing number of pupils and staff awaiting tests could cripple parent confidence in getting their children back to school.
It comes as teachers will today hold a protest outside the Department for Education, arguing that the lack of tests, and the inability of staff, pupils and parents to get to the front of the queue, is stopping schools returning to normal.
One told the i that they had been unable to book a test for their daughter on Sunday either online or on the phone despite trying on an hourly basis.
Her efforts involved driving to a local test centre, which proved to be closed, and then to Gatwick, where despite being the only car waiting, she was turned away as they were only available ‘for those who have booked’.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Telegraph: ‘We are getting reports of bubbles of 250 children being sent home. People on the ground are telling me this is not sustainable and they cannot keep their schools open.
‘Children are being sent home who cannot get tests, and parents are being forced to take two weeks off to look after them. We will end up in an effective lockdown. There is an escalating sense that we will end up with a return to lockdown by default.’
In a torrid session in the Commons, the Health Secretary was also forced to admit the current critical shortages could drag on for weeks.
The public had been told to seek tests ‘if in doubt’. But checks by the Mail found that 46 of the 49 virus hotspots – including Bolton, Bradford and Oldham – had no swabs to offer.
Preston, one of the three areas providing tests said they were not available until January – and 22 miles away.
Mr Hancock is considering making GPs ‘gatekeepers’ for the system, according to ITV’s Robert Peston. This would mean patients would get a test only on their say-so. Peston also reported that if the rule of six did not flatten the pandemic curve within two weeks further lockdown measures would be brought in.
Long queues were seen outside testing centres yesterday, involving many desperate people who had failed to get an online appointment but turned up anyway.
A healthcare worker was one of around 150 outside a walk-in centre in Bury, where infection rates have reached an alarming 77.5 per 100,000 residents.
She shaded herself with an umbrella at the site where staff say they have been ‘overwhelmed’.
Lines also formed in Birmingham and Southend – but in a sign of the general chaos – other test centres were nearly empty. Concerns were also growing about the Government’s seven ‘lighthouse labs’ and their ability to process results, due to shortages of staff and equipment.
One MP said her constituents in Twickenham, south-west London, had been told to travel to Aberdeen to book a test.
Munira Wilson, Lib Dem health spokesman, said: ‘We were promised a world-beating test and trace system but what we have at the moment is an utter shambles.’
Ministers first faced a crisis over testing early on in the first wave of Covid when a campaign by the Mail led to Mr Hancock vowing to deliver 100,000 tests a day.
That pledge was later raised to 200,000, then 500,000 by the end of October and now four million by next February under the ambitious ‘Operation Moonshot’.
However, the system has been thrown back into chaos in recent days because demand for tests has massively increased, overwhelming laboratories.
Staff direct vehicles entering a coronavirus testing centre in Gloucester
The surge has resulted from a rise in daily cases, the return of schools, the rolling-out of regular swabs to care homes and an increase in outbreaks.
As a result, there has been a deluge of complaints that people cannot access tests locally or that they have to wait too long to find out if they are positive or negative. Schools have been closed while teachers wait for results on sick pupils.
NHS leaders warn of a crisis in hospitals, with medics forced to stay away from work and operations cancelled.
Figures yesterday showed that 227,075 tests were carried out across the UK in the previous 24 hours – but that was down from 231,969 on Monday and from 250,839 on Sunday.
Mr Hancock was yesterday summoned to the Commons to answer an urgent question from Labour on the fiasco. Asked whether the issue would be sorted this week, he replied: ‘I think we will be able to solve this problem in a matter of weeks.’
Last night former health secretary Ken Clarke accused ministers of ‘irritating’ the public and spreading ‘disillusion’ by making impossible promises on testing.
Citing testing problems, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said: ‘This is completely unacceptable and totally undermines track and trace so I have raised my concerns with ministers to push for action to be taken as a matter of urgency.’
Dr Layla McCay of the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare organisations, said: ‘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.
‘We seem light years away from the world-beating test-and-trace system that we were promised. Every week we wait for these problems to be resolved is a week of some NHS staff not being able to go to work, and a week that makes it harder to identify and contain Covid-19 surges.’
Mr Hancock is preparing to publish a ‘priority list’ within the next few days which will be used as a rulebook for testing centres in determining who is offered a swab.
This was the queue at Southend’s Covid testing site at 8am, as hundreds of people tried to get a test
Currently anyone, in theory, should be offered one regardless of whether they are a key worker or even have symptoms.
But the list will spell out to centres that if there are shortages of testing capacity, priority will be given to NHS and care home staff as well as to patients, key workers and school pupils. Anyone else faces being refused a test until the capacity is ramped up.
Ministers are also planning to open up two huge lighthouse labs to process test results. Seven are in operation – in Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Newport, Glasgow, Alderley Park in Cheshire, Loughborough in Leicestershire and Antrim in Northern Ireland.The increase in demand has been largely driven by schools going back as children spread coughs and colds. Anxious parents are booking the whole family in for tests to avoid lengthy self-isolation.
The surge in virus cases has sparked worry among the public, and ministers have claimed people are booking tests before going on holiday even though they don’t have any symptoms. At the same time, experts believe testing capacity has been hit by a shortage of equipment and staff, including postgraduate students who have gone back to university.
Last night a leaked memo obtained by The Guardian claimed that the lighthouse labs were stretched to capacity even in late August.How – Page 20
Workers sit around at an almost empty Covid test centre. Covid-19 test centre at Milton Park and ride Cambridge
Six months on… but just as clueless
Analysis by BEN SPENCER
Doctors having to stay off work because they can’t get a test. Pleas for university scientists to help process a huge backlog of swabs.
Sound familiar? Those stories dominated the headlines at the end of March. Incredibly, nearly six months on, they have resurfaced.
So how did it get to this?
The Government spent April and May dealing with their testing failures by building a huge new system that was meant to be able to provide a test to every person who needed one.
First, we were promised 100,000 tests a day, then 250,000, then 400,000. Finally, last week, came Boris Johnson’s ‘moonshot’ announcement – ‘literally millions’ of people would be tested every day ‘in the near future’, he claimed.
It sounded remarkable – a pathway back to normality. But the reality? On most days in the past few weeks the system has struggled to process even 150,000 swabs a day, and is now facing a backlog of at least 185,000.
People with symptoms are regularly told there is no test available – unless they are willing to travel hundreds of miles.
And yesterday Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a new ‘prioritisation’ list, making clear that patients and care home residents would be front of the queue. So why has this vast testing system so dramatically crumbled?
The core reason is that demand has soared – and the network of laboratories that process the tests simply cannot keep up.
Infections are doubling every week – and for each person who tests positive, there are up to 100 more who need a test even if they’re found to be negative. The start of the school term has also meant a spike in seasonal coughs and colds, which has led to even greater demand.
But all of this was foreseeable. Scientists have long warned that the testing system must be fit for purpose by the time the schools return, and even more importantly, in time for a predicted second Covid spike this winter.
Sir John Bell, at the University of Oxford, said ministers had ‘underestimated’ the speed at which cases would surge and the extra demand from children going back to school.
‘They are definitely behind the curve,’ he said.
But instead of accepting they were caught unawares – yet again – ministers have instead blamed the public for ‘frivolously’ seeking tests when they do not have symptoms. Given that ministers and officials spent the summer trying to persuade people to seek tests, this is not only unfair but also misleading.
The Government seems intent on diverting attention away from fundamental problems with its network of seven privately run ‘Lighthouse’ labs, set up in the spring. At the time, scientists questioned why ministers were turning to the private sector, instead of using the expertise in Britain’s university labs.
The Lighthouse labs are now reportedly dealing with a staffing shortfall. There have also been issues with reliability. Allan Wilson, the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, the professional body for lab scientists, said: ‘We are calling for transparency. We need someone to lift the lid on the Lighthouse labs and say what is the capacity.’
With cases on the rise, and no quick solution in sight, the problems of last spring are definitely back – and they seem set to stretch into the winter.
Care boss: Act now or deaths in homes will soar again
Testing in care homes must improve or there may be more deaths, England’s care chief has warned.
Professor Martin Green said testing within the sector ‘has gone backwards’ with long delays to get tests and results.
The Government’s pledge of weekly testing for staff and monthly testing for residents is not being met in many areas, he said, potentially allowing the virus to spread unchecked.
The warning comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock vowed to put care homes at the front of the queue while announcing plans to ration coronavirus tests for those most in need.
On the frontline: Staff at Shedfield Lodge care home near Southampton, which received a delivery of PPE from Mail-backed charity Mail Force, have struggled to get test results
The rise in coronavirus infections has seen cases creep up in care homes, with official figures showing 513 cases recorded in homes between August 31 and September 6.
Cases have mainly been among staff so far – but there are fears it could spread to residents, leading to more catastrophic fatalities.
Earlier this week the Government wrote to care home providers in England to warn them of a rise in coronavirus infections within the sector.
The letter, from the director of adult social care delivery, urged bosses to ‘take necessary action to prevent and limit outbreaks’.
It has led hundreds of homes to be closed to visitors again, just a month after re-opening.
Local public health officials are now directing whether visits should still be permitted, depending on infection rates in that area.
Professor Green, chief executive of Care England which represents independent providers of adult social care, said homes were desperate to allow visitors but had to ‘balance the risk of bringing in Covid’.
‘If we don’t improve testing, there is a real risk of repeating deaths earlier this year,’ he said. Testing has been frustratingly ‘sporadic’ according to the manager of Shedfield Lodge care home near Southampton in Hampshire.
The home, which received a vital batch of personal protective equipment in April from the Mail Force charity backed by this newspaper, has had no trouble getting hold of the kits.
But some staff and residents are still waiting for their results weeks later, despite a supposed 72-hour turnaround time.
Manager Alicia Taskis said yesterday: ‘The results have been sporadic. Some staff have received no results. Some staff have waited a lot longer than 72 hours. We sent 20 testing kits off on Friday and currently nobody has got one back.’
The surge in community infections has seen two of the largest national care operators close homes to visitors.
Care UK has closed 48 of its 124 care homes to visitors temporarily while HC-One has done the same at 133 of its 329 homes and is restricting visits in areas that have seen spikes in cases.
A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘We have been doing everything we can to ensure all staff and residents in care homes are protected.’
Patients denied surgery without Covid all-clear
Patients are being denied operations because they cannot get a test to prove they are virus-free.
One man had his surgery postponed by two weeks – even though his consultant wanted to bring it forward – after the testing centre lost his result. Operations and appointments have been cancelled because patients cannot book a slot to prove they do not have the virus.
Gavin Zembrzuski, 31, was meant to be having knee surgery on Monday but it has now been postponed until the end of the month because his local testing centre lost the result.
Gavin Zembrzuski, 31, was meant to be having knee surgery on Monday but it has now been postponed until the end of the month because his local testing centre lost the result
Patients undergoing NHS surgery must have had a negative test result three days before the procedure otherwise it cannot go ahead.
Mr Zembrzuski, who lives in Llandrindod, in Powys, Wales, said: ‘If they can’t manage a minor operation like my knee, I fear for people who need surgery for life-threatening conditions like cancer.’
Yesterday hospital leaders warned that the testing fiasco was affecting routine services as NHS staff were also having to take time off self-isolating.
NHS Providers said senior staff in London, Bristol and Leeds had reported doctors and nurses calling in sick, unable to get a test.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of the organisation, which represents hospitals and other acute trusts, said the health service ‘simply can’t spare members of staff waiting for tests, not being able to come into work’.
He added: ‘We have now got cases where patients who should be being treated, we can’t treat them because they can’t get access to a test. So for them that’s a real problem.’
Delays hit teachers … so hundreds of pupils miss lessons
Academies boss Steve Chalke
Schools are being ‘let down’ by delays with Covid-19 testing which are keeping hundreds of pupils off lessons across the country, an academy boss claimed yesterday.
And the Government’s ‘chaotic’ handling of the crisis is causing massive disruption to education.
Headteachers have complained a ‘lack of sufficient capacity’ means a single virus case at a school can leave several pupil groups in isolation because they are unable to find out if they are infected.
Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis academy trust, said eight of its schools have had to send home a total of 1,200 pupils to self-isolate, including whole year groups.
Oasis Academy South Bank in central London has sent 240 children home because a single teacher tested positive. Other staff members told to isolate as a precaution have been unable to get tests. Mr Chalke said: ‘We feel let down… What schools need is on site testing, they need bulk testing, they need regular testing.’
He attacked the ‘massive disruption to the education of every child’.
James Bowen, of school leaders’ union NAHT, said there was ‘chaos being caused by the inability of staff and families to successfully get tested when they display symptoms’.
Over 30 schools have told at least one full cohort to stay home or closed down altogether after one coronavirus case, it emerged yesterday.
A Government spokesman said children and school staff should only get a test if they develop symptoms.
Pictured is one of academies boss Steve Chalke’s schools, which sent 240 pupils home
Just three of the top 49 hotspots have tests available
By Sam Greenhill, Jake Hurfurt and Andy Dolan for the Daily Mail
No coronavirus tests were available yesterday in 46 out of England’s top 49 infection hotspots, a snap survey has revealed.
In most places where people reported symptoms, the official Covid-19 test booking system simply said: ‘No slots available’.
One exception was Preston, Lancashire, where a test was offered for anyone willing to travel 22 miles – and wait until next year.
Users also reported that if you live in London, but enter a postcode for Aberdeen, you are offered a test in the capital.
In another quirk, there was nothing available in Liverpool yesterday, but people there were being directed to cross the River Mersey to Wirral, while those in Wirral itself were being sent to Deeside, 11 miles south.
Meanwhile, many testing sites appeared to be empty, with staff idle. Boris Johnson has promised a ‘world-beating’ testing operation would be in place by June.
But yesterday it was exposed as a shambles by a Daily Mail survey. Tests were requested using postcodes in every one of the 49 areas on Public Health England’s watchlist where infection rates are highest.
Only Sefton on Merseyside, Sheffield and Northampton offered tests on the day for people living there. Daily Mail reporters did not actually book any of the offered tests.
Top of the hotspots list is Bolton, which has 121 cases per 100,000 people. Despite reporters making several attempts yesterday, no test slots for people living there were available.
The Government website set up to handle booking requests asks users a series of questions, including whether they are a key worker. Answering ‘yes’ appeared to make no difference.
Getting to the point where the website says ‘no slots available’ takes several attempts. Most times, users are greeted with a message saying: ‘This service is currently very busy. Try again in a few hours’. In Preston, there were not any local tests available but the website did offer a test in Litherland, which is 22 miles away on Merseyside.
However, despite stating that there were ’34 slots available’, the website was then unable to offer a booking until at least January 31, 2021.
However, on-the-day tests were available in five other areas on the watchlist – Wirral, Liverpool, Knowsley, Stoke-on-Trent and St Helens – to those willing to travel to a neighbouring area, up to 19 miles away.
In Coventry, staff at the drive-in test centre opposite the Ricoh Stadium seemed concerned about stopping the media from reporting on the near-empty facility. Five of the eight testing bays appeared to be empty.
Security staff tried to stop a reporter from taking pictures from a dual carriageway overlooking the site, and insisted he delete the pictures before he would be allowed to drive away.
A Department of Health spokesman said later that journalists were not banned from taking photos of test sites, but were asked not to take pictures of people using the sites or of their car registration plates without first seeking permission.
He said of the testing situation: ‘It is wrong to say testing is not available in these areas, and our capacity continues to be targeted where it is needed most. Whilst we are seeing significant demand, over a million tests are being processed every week – with around 200,000 every day on average over the last week.’