Doctors urge government to 'get a grip' as COVID-19 testing falters

Doctors have urged the government to 'get a grip' on COVID-19 testing as widespread problems with access to tests left MPs warning the system was 'on the verge of collapse'.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul: COVID-19 warning (Photo: JH Lancy)
BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul: COVID-19 warning (Photo: JH Lancy)

GPonline reported yesterday on criticism from GPs over problems with the COVID-19 testing system that have seen patients offered tests hundreds of miles from where they live, or unable to access tests at all.

One GP reported a 48-hour wait before being able to book a test for a member of their household with COVID-19 symptoms - potentially creating a significant delay in the GP's own availability for face-to-face work with patients. One London MP reported a constituent being offered a test more than 380 miles away in Scotland.

A director of the NHS test and trace programme has apologised for 'anyone who cannot get a COVID test at present' - blaming a lack of laboratory processing capacity for causing the bottleneck.

COVID-19 testing problems

Both the BMA and the Labour party have demanded that the government get a grip on the situation as a matter of urgency - particularly as cases rise at a time when school and university students are returning, and with more workers back in offices and other workplaces.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'The admission from Test and Trace’s own director of testing that lab capacity is at "critical pinch point" underlines the urgent need for the government to get a grip on the testing system that is clearly not delivering.

'In recent days we’ve heard concerning reports from doctors that they or their patients are unable to access tests and follow-up results at what is a critical time in the fight against COVID-19. These doctors are themselves frustrated but equally concerned for patients who are contacting them unsure of what to do.

'We’ve seen numbers of cases rise exponentially in the last two days, with warnings for the public not to be complacent – yet such a failure in testing strategy completely undermines any attempt to bring the infection rate down.'

Cases rising

Dr Nagpaul warned that an effective test and trace system was 'crucial in managing our response and reducing case numbers', warning that failures with testing 'seriously threatens England’s ability to reduce the spread of this deadly virus'.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC that the government should have used the summer months to put in place an effective testing system - but had failed to do so.

Now, he warned - amid a rise in positive COVID-19 tests to levels last seen in May - the evidence points to a 'testing regime that is on the verge of collapse'.

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth challenged health secretary Matt Hancock in partliament over the problems. He said: 'In Leicester someone was advised to head north 245 miles to Edinburgh. But in Devon, helpfully people were told they only need travel 20 miles.

Testing failures

'Unfortunately, that involved crossing the sea to get to Swansea. I know the secretary of state thinks he can walk on water, but sadly our constituents can’t.'

Northern Ireland's health minister Robin Swann has also challenged Mr Hancock over failures with the testing system after patient in Northern Ireland were offered tests across the Irish Sea in Great Britain.

Mr Swann said: 'No one in Northern Ireland is expected to travel outside the jurisdiction for a test. These slots have been offered by the online system because it has not on occasions recognised local requirements. The same problem has been reported in Scotland. I want to see this glitch resolved as a priority.'

He also urged the public to use the testing system responsibly - highlighting that 'common cold symptoms outside of a cough, fever or loss of/ change to sense of taste or smell do not require a test'.

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'NHS Test and Trace is working, our capacity is the highest it has ever been and our laboratories are processing more than 1m tests a week.

'We are seeing a significant demand for tests but if you have symptoms we urge you to get tested. New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily and you can help protect yourself if you wash your hands, cover your face and make space.

'We are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, as well as prioritising at-risk groups and we recently announced new laboratory facilities and new technology to process results even faster.'

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