The British Government has been forced to defend itself over coronavirus testing shortages that have seen doctors and nurses unable to get tested as COVID-19 as cases in the UK rise and the demand for tests surged.
Several months after Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised a “world beating” system to test and trace coronavirus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Tuesday admitted “operational challenges” mean it could be weeks before the current problems are resolved.
Currently in the UK anyone with coronavirus symptoms can get a free test via the National Health Service, but a spike in the number of people wanting to get tested has seen long lines outside testing centres and reports of people in England’s 10 worst-hit COVID-19 hotspots unable to get any tests at all.
There were around 3,100 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday with 24 more deaths, while the R number (reproduction number) sits between 1 and 1.2, meaning that on average every 10 people infected will infect between 10 and 12 others.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, said a growing number of staff were unable to come to work because they or someone they live with had COVID-like symptoms but could not get tested.
He said hospital bosses were “working in the dark” as they did not know why there were shortages, how long they were likely to last, how geographically widespread they are nor what priority would be given to healthcare workers.
“The problem is that NHS trusts are working in the dark — they don’t know why these shortages are occurring, how long they are likely to last, how geographically widespread they are likely to be and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests.”
Britain advises those showing symptoms should get a test though it says the system has been burdened by people with no symptoms asking for tests, while some schools have demanded any ill students get a test or stay away for 14 days.
Mr Hancock said the Government was working around the clock to fix the issues and that some people seeking tests were not eligible to receive them.
“There are operational challenges and we’re working hard to fix them,” he told Parliament.
“We’ve seen a sharp rise in people coming forward for a test, including those who are not eligible.”
The Government could implement “further steps” to ensure tests are given to those deemed a higher priority, he said.
“Throughout this pandemic we have prioritised testing according to need,” he said.
“Over the summer, when demand was low, we were able to meet all requirements for testing, whether priorities or not.
“But as demand has risen, so we are having to prioritise once again, and I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation.
“They are not always comfortable, but they are important.”
Britain eventually wants to be able to carry out millions of COVID-19 tests a day, known as Mr Johnson’s “Operation Moonshot” plan for mass testing, but doing so depends on new technology being developed, Mr Hancock told Parliament.
Opposition leader Sir Kier Starmer, who is currently isolating after a family member displayed coronavirus symptoms, said the Government’s handling of testing was “incompetent” and that it had failed to prepare over the summer for a rise in demand.