Three quarters of GPs report patients struggling to get COVID tests

Almost three quarters of GPs say their patients have struggled to access COVID-19 tests in recent weeks - with many reporting rising practice workload as a result, polling by GPonline reveals.

COVID-19 swab test (Photo: RapidEye/Getty Images)
COVID-19 swab test (Photo: RapidEye/Getty Images)

Doctors reported problems with booking tests through the government website, tests offered in locations patients could not get to - and in some cases lost or delayed results. One respondent said the government's testing system was 'failing the British people'.

Two thirds of the 431 GPs who took part said practices should be able to distribute home testing kits to patients with suspected COVID-19 infection to improve access to tests. Three in five, however, said they did not think GPs or practice staff should be expected to swab patients in practices.

The findings come as four in five family doctors said their practice was facing levels of workload that are above normal - with rising demand for consultations and staff absences adding to pressure.

COVID-19 testing

Of GPs who reported patients struggling to access tests almost 80% said patients had been unable to book via the government website.

Almost two thirds of respondents reporting problems with access to tests said having to travel long distances was a key problem for patients - with some respondents warning patients did not own vehicles and were unable to get to testing centres.

Close to one fifth of GP partners responding to the survey - carried out in the week to 20 September - said care homes in their area had experienced problems with access to COVID tests.

Doctors told GPonline last month that the NHS COVID-19 testing system was ‘not working’ as cases of coronavirus began to spike once more.

Testing farce

The GP said: ‘It seemed to be working smoothly a month ago but in the last couple of weeks the system seems to have completely broken. The government website is not working properly to show available tests - sometimes when you get an appointment the website does not book it for you.

‘When you do get a test done the results are hugely delayed, impacting patients and their household contacts in numerous ways, eg. work, childcare, accessing planned medical appointments because they have to self isolate for longer… All in all, the COVID-19 testing system currently is a farce and is failing the British people.'

The government recently admitted that nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases went unreported in England following a ‘technical issue’ when positive test results were being processed. Daily cases confirmed by testing have spiked from around 3,000 per day in mid-September to more than 14,500 on 6 October.

GPs were also agreed in their views on what role they should play in testing - with the majority saying they were too busy to take on more work.

Workload increase

One family doctor said: ‘I think giving GPs the ability to test [patients] would greatly increase workload - and the process of obtaining a swab would put us at increased risk of being infected.'

Another said: ‘We don’t have staffing or infrastructure to test for COVID. Also, patients who try to book a test are being told to see a GP when they can’t book a test - what are we supposed to do? The government should do as promised and take responsibility for testing and tracing.’

The government recently denied plans to make GPs 'gatekeepers’ of the COVID-19 testing system after doctors' leaders warned the move could overwhelm practices.

BMA chiefs have repeatedly urged the government to ‘get a grip’ on its testing programme - warning that failures with testing ‘seriously threatens England’s ability to reduce the spread’ of coronavirus.

A DHSC spokesperson said the survey was carried out 'during a spike in demand for tests'.

The spokesperson said: 'We have the biggest testing system per head of population of all the major countries in Europe, which is processing tests at an unprecedented scale - more than 240,000 a day on average over the last week.

'As we expand our testing capacity further, we are bringing in new labs that can process tens of thousands of tests a day, opening new test sites and trialling new rapid tests that will give results on the spot.'

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