Covid testing: local authorities in England demand more control

Health directors criticise central system, which has left people travelling hundreds of miles

Local public health leaders in England are demanding greater control over the Covid-19 testing system after circulating a list of complaints about the way it is running and accusing ministers of giving mixed messages about tests’ availability.

The complaints, seen by the Guardian, have been prompted by fears that a capacity shortage is hindering attempts to quell local outbreaks.

The directors of public health want local testing units to be dedicated to local people rather than being made available nationally, in some cases to people who live hundreds of miles away.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, on Wednesday appeared to partly blame the public for test shortages, saying some people were using them in a way that was “inappropriate”.

He said the centralised system – which often suggests the nearest testing centre is more than 100 miles away – was being overwhelmed by people trying to book tests when they did not have symptoms, which he said was contrary to the government’s advice. He said about 25% of the people who come forward were in fact not eligible for a test.

“I’ve even heard stories of people saying: ‘I’m going on holiday next week, therefore I’m going to get a test,’” he said. “No, that is not what the testing system is there for. We’ve got to be firmer, I’m afraid, with the rules around eligibility for testing.”

The shadow health secretary, John Ashworth, accused ministers of “seeking to blame people for simply doing what they were advised”. On 21 July, Hancock had said: “If you have any doubt, get a coronavirus test,” and that “anyone who needs a test can get a test”.

Ashworth said: “With children returning to school and thousands returning to the office, it’s obvious extra testing capacity would be needed. The fact ministers failed to plan is yet more staggering incompetence.”

Extraordinary examples of delays and anecdotes about people being directed to test centres far away from their homes continued to emerge. On Wednesday morning, people logging on to the NHS Test and Trace website were again confronted with the message: “This service is currently very busy. More tests should be available later.”

There were many more complaints from the public about the shortage of tests. The family of one five-year-old boy with symptoms was told there were no test appointments available until 17 September and no home testing kits left, the boy’s grandfather told the Guardian. They have been told the whole household must self-isolate and the boy cannot go to school for 14 days.

In Walthamstow, east London, residents were being offered tests in Newport, south Wales – a 320-mile round trip.

The daily scramble for community tests has also raised concerns in the NHS about additional pressures on its services, with many callers giving up on the dedicated 119 helpline number for getting a test and calling the general 111 NHS number instead. In other instances people have been going to their GPs.

There is also evidence that some testing stations may have been providing tests to people who were asymptomatic. One east London father reported taking his symptomatic son to a drive-through test site and the site staff strongly urged him and his other child, who was also in the car, to take a test even though they had no symptoms.

Sarah-Jane Marsh, the director of testing at NHS Test and Trace, apologised on Tuesday for the situation, saying laboratory processing was “the critical pinch-point”. But frustration is running high among local health officials.

“I am not interested in an apology,” said one senior director of public health. “I want them to pull their finger out and sort this mess out or hand it over to us and get out of the way. The problem of testing capacity was entirely avoidable. Hancock was the one who said go and get tested, there’s lots of tests. It is getting more and more shambolic.”

Ian Ashworth, the director of public health for Cheshire West and Chester, told the Guardian he had been contacted this week by a symptomatic resident who had been offered a test in either Telford or London in five days. There is a walk-through testing centre in Chester city centre but because it is on the national booking system, the slots are available to people everywhere.

“We can’t manage outbreaks like that,” he said. “It’s like having one hand tied behind your back. We have been asked to develop outbreak plans and testing plans go with that. But if our local testing capacity is being used up by the national system there is no way we can control local outbreaks.”

Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, the president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said: “It is crucial not only that the quantity of tests is sufficient, but that that testing capacity is targeted and used in such a way that those with symptoms can access tests near to where they live and receive their result back promptly. Clear and concise communication from the government on who is eligible for testing is vital.”


Robert Booth and Simon Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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