A rationing plan for coronavirus tests will be announced within days after ministers admitted it will still be “weeks” before a backlog is solved.
Ordinary members of the public could find themselves being forced to wait as NHS workers, followed by those in social care, are put first.
It comes despite the government for months insisting people must get a test if they had any of the three coronavirus symptoms, or even if “in doubt”.
And it will raise fears as testing is the critical way of tracing positive cases’ close contacts, in order to tell them to go into isolation for 14 days.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday admitted his decisions about “prioritisation” might not be “comfortable”.
Despite promising a whole week ago the problems would be sorted in “a couple of weeks”, he again said they would take “weeks” to solve.
The plan raises the grim prospect of people with Covid-19 symptoms being officially denied tests for the first time since testing was ramped up earlier this summer.
Downing Street and government sources have not yet made clear whether the “prioritisation” plan will deprive tests to people with symptoms – either completely, or for a period of time in high demand.
Today a Cabinet minister, Robert Buckland, said the government will “over the next few days explain what it looks like.”
The Justice Secretary said: “It has to be the NHS first and then social care.
“And then I think we need to have a cascading system where we know where our priorities should be.
“For me priorities should be for children in school and their parents to make sure that their lives are safe – and also that they’re not disrupted in the way that we’re seeing.”
Thousands with symptoms are already struggling to get tests under the current chaos.
Despite ministers’ claims the average person travels just over five miles for a test, huge queues have been seen at testing centres and many people are still reporting being completely unable to book a test.
Bolton NHS Foundation Trust said it was managing a “high volume” of patients who had turned up to A&E requesting tests after struggling to secure them online or at mobile units.
Bolton NHS Foundation Trust chairwoman Professor Donna Hall tweeted: “Very busy emergency department today as poorly people unable to get a test come to us for help.
“This is why it’s so important to have a functioning testing & tracing system – one day of delays can cause hundreds more infections. This is a very worrying situation for us in Bolton.”
In one baffling anecdote yesterday, Twickenham MP Munira Wilson said her constituents couldn’t get a test when using their own postcode – but if they put in an Aberdeen postcode they could.
Mr Hancock did not explain the reason for the error – but urged the public not to “game the system.”
He admitted there were “operational challenges” which the government was “working hard to fix”.
But he continued to blame the public for, in a reported quarter of cases, getting tests when they did not have symptoms.
He added: “I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation. They’re not always comfortable, but they are important.”
Mr Buckland admitted there are “still real challenges” with the testing system.
Boris Johnson will face a grilling from senior MPs later today amid a warning that the “failure” of the test and trace system is placing huge pressure on the health service.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will miss PMQs as he remains in isolation awaiting a coronavirus test result for a member of his family.
The PM will later face questions from select committee chairs who make up the Liaison Committee.