Coronavirus testing system ‘falling over’

People across England have told BBC News they are struggling to access coronavirus tests.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last week that no-one should have to travel more than 75 miles for a test, after the BBC revealed some were being sent hundreds of miles away.

But dozens have now reported being unable to book a swab at all.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said testing capacity was targeted at the hardest-hit areas.

A significant rise in demand for testing led the government to reduce the number of appointments available in areas of lower prevalence, to prioritise areas with outbreaks.

This in turn led to people applying for tests being directed to centres sometimes hundreds of miles away.

But last Thursday Mr Hancock pledged to put in “immediate” solutions to make sure people did not have to travel more than 75 miles, effective from last Friday.

Since then, postcodes entered into the government’s booking system return a message suggesting there are no testing centres or home kits available – even if you are an essential worker with symptoms.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said he understood it would be “naturally worrying” for people with symptoms who could not secure a test in a “timely way”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the testing system was under “pressure” because of the spike in the infection rate of the virus.

Mr Gove said: “We are increasing the number of tests. It is the case that the capacity every day is for 370,000 – we do want to do more.”

He added that No 10 is working to boost capacity through investment in new testing centres and so-called lighthouse labs.

‘Complete nightmare’

Melissa, a GP in north-west England, applied for a test for her seven-year-old son on Tuesday after he developed a new continuous cough and changes to his sense of taste.

After being offered a test in Sunderland, about 130 miles away, she applied via her local NHS’s staff portal – designed to prioritise health staff.

But this system directed her first to Telford, almost 100 miles away, and then to London, a distance of more than 200 miles.

No home kits were available.

“It was a complete nightmare,” she said. “I had to cancel face-to-face appointments with patients, including baby clinics.”

She added that this had become a common theme in NHS Facebook groups of which she was a member.

“The whole system is going to fall over.

“It doesn’t feel like the infrastructure is there to support NHS staff going into winter.”

This sentiment was echoed by a psychiatrist in an area currently subject to government intervention because of its high rate of coronavirus.

She found that no tests were available after developing all of the textbook coronavirus symptoms, including a cough and a fever.

‘Glitch in the system’

Frances, in Suffolk, tried to apply for a test when her daughter developed a high temperature. She didn’t think it was coronavirus but “the rules are the rules”.

She had understood that anyone with a temperature should apply for a test, and was not able to send either of her children to school until she did.

“Their teachers need to be kept safe, their classmates need to be kept safe, we need to do the right thing,” she said.

Frances, like Melissa, was also not able to get a home kit, and when she tried to get an appointment at a drive-through centre was told no test sites were found.

“It almost looks like a glitch in the system,” she said.

And Jamie in Chesterfield spent seven hours trying to contact someone using the 119 number after no slots were appearing on the online booking system.

His school-age child had developed a new cough.

“It’s the right thing to do according to the guidelines,” he said.

Eventually he managed to get a test 50 miles away.

It comes as a number of different data sources show cases are rising and the epidemic is growing for the first time since before lockdown.

On Friday, the number of new daily confirmed UK cases of the virus rose to 3,539 – an increase of more than 600 on the previous day.

The virus is still at much lower levels across the UK than at the peak in April, but a study of thousands of people in England found cases doubling every seven to eight days, with a marked rise in infections in the north and among young people.

Although cases are rising, the number of patients in hospital remains largely flat at 863.

What do I need to know about the coronavirus?

There are some suggestions that the problems with accessing tests have happened since schools have returned.

Mr Hancock has claimed 25% of people applying for tests are not eligible because they don’t have symptoms, although his department did not say where this figure came from.

Meanwhile, NHS 111 data published on 11 September reported a rise in calls relating to children with symptoms that would make them eligible for a coronavirus test.

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