Health chiefs today confronted Matt Hancock over his claims NHS staff are not coming forward for coronavirus tests as they told him sick nurses were driving two hours to testing centres only be told to come back another day.
Dame Donna Kinnair, the chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said she had been told examples from the frontline of self-isolating NHS workers still struggling to get checked.
Meanwhile, a senior practice nurse in north London has labelled the testing operation ‘an absolute disgrace’ after she was forced to stay at home for a month due to the fact she could not access a test.
Those comments are in stark contrast to the claims made by the Health Secretary who has argued lower than expected demand among NHS staff has allowed the government to expand its operation to other public sector workers.
Earlier this week he announced tests would be extended across the social care setting and today he said the police, fire service, prison staff and judges will also now be eligible.
Mr Hancock has set a target of 100,000 daily tests by the end of the month but today he appeared to lay the groundwork for a potential failure to hit that number as he described it as an ‘ambitious goal’.
He also insisted he had set the public target in order to ‘galvanise’ efforts to increase capacity.
The latest numbers show that just 18,665 tests were carried out in the 24 hours to midday yesterday.
But Downing Street has said testing capacity is now at 38,000 with ministers struggling to explain why the number of tests is so far below capacity.
Matt Hancock today told the Health and Social Care Select Committee that coronavirus testing will be expanded to more public sector workers
But Dame Donna Kinnair from the Royal College of Nursing challenged Mr Hancock’s claims that demand for tests from NHS workers had dropped
London nurse Barabara Botsford has told how she was prevented from working for four weeks because of a testing ‘fiasco’
Mr Hancock had said there was lower than expected demand for tests from NHS workers over the Easter weekend.
But healthcare bosses have cast doubt on his claims of a reduction in demand amid suggestions that the flat numbers could actually be down to testing failures and poor access to checks for workers.
Dame Donna told the Health and Social Care Select Committee: ‘There is an issue about how we get nurses and others to be able to be tested because actually it’s not quite clear.
‘So you would expect as an employer, that if you started to become ill that you would be able to have a defined place to go to, and your employer would instruct you where to go.
‘What I’m hearing from the frontline is that nurses are driving up to two hours, feeling very unwell with possible symptoms of coronavirus and driving to testing stations, and sometimes if you haven’t got an appointment you’re turned away only to be told to come back another time.
‘So we really need some clear direction of how we can access testing, both in the NHS but more so for social care because [they] don’t have the same infrastructure as the NHS.’
Barbara Botsford, a nurse in London, told the Evening Standard she was unable to work for a month due to testing access problems.
She said she had to wait weeks for a test after self-isolating, finally got one, was then told it had been lost and that she would have to be tested again before the original then appeared showing she had tested negative.
Ms Botsford said she had been ‘desperate’ to return to work but had been prevented from doing so for four weeks because of the testing ‘fiasco’.
Mr Hancock told the same committee that the current NHS coronavirus-related staff absence rate is 7.1 per cent, down slightly on the previous statistic of eight per cent.
The Health Secretary has said he is sticking to his 100,000 tests target but today insisted ‘ramp up’ was happening even before he made the promise.
‘I don’t think if we had announced the 100,000 target a couple of weeks earlier as you suggest we would be in any different position now because we were continuing to drive to increase testing all along,’ he told MPs.
The Health Secretary has set a target of 100,000 daily tests by the end of April. The graph shows how much work the government has to do to hit the six figure number
A coronavirus testing centre at the 02 on Greenwich Peninsula yesterday – one of three drive through sites in London
‘The challenge is that the increase, the radical increase, in the amount of testing over the last two months from 2,000 tests a day at the start of March to 10,000 tests a day at the end of March and now with the ambitious goal I have set of 100,000 by the end of this month.
‘That ramp up has been ongoing throughout. I set a public target in part because people were asking how fast are we going to get there and because it also managed to galvanise the non-diagnostic pharmaceutical industry here.’
Mr Hancock said that now ‘we have got the curve under control, I want to be able to get back to the position that we can test everybody with symptoms’.
‘I anticipate being able to do that relatively soon because we are increasing capacity,’ he said.
Announcing a further expansion of testing to more public sector workers he added: ‘I can today expand the eligibility for testing to police, the fire service, prison staff, critical local authority staff, the judiciary and DWP staff who need it.
‘We are able to do that because of the scale up of testing.’
Yesterday it emerged that Mr Hancock had failed to hit a target of carrying out 25,000 daily coronavirus tests.
The Department of Health announced on March 18 that testing for coronavirus would increase to 25,000 a day ‘within four weeks’ with that period now having elapsed and the number of tests still below even 20,000.