Care homes are receiving far more coronavirus testing kits than they order, raising concern that the extra supplies help the government inflate the number of people it claims have been tested.
The apparently widespread nature of the practice in England has prompted fresh suspicion that ministers are counting swab kits sent out as tests done to exaggerate official figures.
“We have had providers who told us they asked for 100 tests and got 500 tests. It doesn’t make sense,” Nadra Ahmed, executive chair of the National Care Association, which represents independent care homes, told the Guardian.
“For the provider it’s good, because they can have a stock to use, and maybe this is part of a consistent supply. But the cynical side of this is that by getting [more] out, they can state the number being sent out rather than the number tested.”
One care home manager wrote last week to residents’ families telling them that when she recently asked for kits with which to test loved ones and staff, “instead of sending 200, I was sent 400”.
“I telephoned the company that has been contracted by the government to complete the testing, as I was concerned that I had received someone else’s testing sets by mistake, to be told that they have been told to send out double the amount that has been requested, [and] they then record that number as daily tests completed,” added the manager, who we have chosen not to name.
Robin Hall, manager of the Home of Comfort nursing home in Southsea and secretary of the Hampshire Care Association, said her home requested 92 kits and received 150. Other homes in Hampshire asked for 62 kits and got 100, another sought 20 and received 50, and another got 50 after requesting 35.
Gabriel Scally, a member of the Independent Sage committee of scientific and medical experts, said the dispatching of extra kits to care homes appeared to be a deliberate attempt to distort the total that ministers announce at the government’s press briefings as the number of tests carried out.
“This appears to be a fiddling of the figures,” he said. “If, as reported, unnecessary and unrequested sampling kits have been dispatched so that they could be counted as ‘tests’, this is disgraceful and, in my view, verging on the corrupt.
“An independent and urgent investigation is required. Not later, not when the pandemic is over, but immediately. It is important for public confidence and important for all the dedicated health service and pubic health staff working within the system,” added Scally, a professor of public health at Bristol University.
Ministers should recognise that the data on tests, which is central to the effectiveness of the government’s new system of tackling the coronavirus by testing, tracing and isolating those who have symptoms of it or been exposed to it, must be reliable, he said.
“It is entirely and deliberately inaccurate to define, for statistical purposes, the act of dispatching a sampling kit as constituting a ‘test’. A test has not been carried out until a laboratory has completed the analysis of the sample. A swab is not a test,” he said.
There are suggestions that as few as half the people who are sent a swab test return them for analysis, though no official figures have been released. Many people find it hard to get the long-stemmed cotton bud far enough down their nose or throat to collect the number of cells needed to get a reliable result. That contributes to a “false negative” rate, which studies have found can be as high as 29%.
Some care homes want kits that they have inadvertently stockpiled after receiving extra ones to be given to those in greater need, now that the first wave of the pandemic appears to be receding.
A spokesperson for a chains of care homes, which asked not to be named, said: “We too have had experience of excess tests being delivered, which has not been accompanied by any guidance on what to do with unused tests. From our perspective it makes sense for these to be collected or reallocated to other services.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are not aware that any homes will have received such significant amounts of additional kits.” But it indicated that care homes could end up with spare kits because they are dispatched in batches of 50.
Working with private companies, the department has so far sent more than 1m testing kits to more than 9,000 care homes since 11 May. Tests sent to care homes or self-testing kits sent to people’s homes are counted towards its total of “tests” completed, it confirmed.