Public health leaders battling to contain a rising tide of Covid-19 infections in England are being hampered by delays in accessing and processing PCR tests, even as the country prepares to lift remaining pandemic restrictions on Monday.
A surge in numbers seeking a test is expected, as the country ends all remaining social restrictions and self-isolation rules are eased, in favour of regular testing, from August 16.
Yet the national booking system is being regularly switched off for hours at a time, according to health officials on the ground.
Kate Ardern, public health director for Wigan in Greater Manchester, said the portal through which tests are booked “keeps switching on and off which seems to be a very crude way of them trying to manage demand”.
Turnround times for tests have been lengthening and Ardern said part of the reason for slowing down the number of tests taken was to ease strain on lab capacity.
Many more people are likely to seek a test in the coming weeks with epidemiologists forecasting that case numbers could reach more than 100,000 a day. Business leaders have warned of worsening staff shortages as more people catch Covid-19 or are told to isolate after coming in contact with someone who has tested positive.
Boris Johnson, prime minister and chancellor Rishi Sunak are both isolating after Sajid Javid, health secretary, reported having a positive Covid test over the weekend.
Comparing the situation to September last year, when England’s Test and Trace programme failed to anticipate enhanced demand for testing when schools resumed, Ardern said: “You’ve got to put in place the resilience in the system for a surge.”
Another senior public health director, who did not wish to be named, echoed those worries. “I don’t think they’re on top of it at all. Directors of public health have got real concerns and we’re trying to get them to sort it,” the official said.
Some care homes had even been asked to change the days they tested residents to avoid “a massive glut of tests” coming through on Mondays, which would further strain lab capacity, they said.
Data released by the NHS last week noted that turnround times for testing in the community had been “relatively stable” since the end of January but had “decreased substantially” since the third week of May.
In the most recent week’s data, covering the period to July 7, 63 per cent of tests carried out in person were received within 24 hours, compared with 76.9 per cent the previous week. The median turnround time for tests carried out at home had increased from 45 hours to 56 hours. Meanwhile, the turnround time for “satellite” tests — carried out in NHS hospitals or care homes — had increased from 39 hours to 49 hours.
Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, said capacity in so-called Lighthouse labs — set up by the government as it sought urgently to ramp up test processing in the early months of the pandemic — had been reduced earlier this year as infections fell. A new mega-lab at Leamington Spa in the English Midlands had finally opened on Tuesday, months later than expected, “but not at the forecast capacity”, he said.
Workforce shortages also appear to have been a factor in the longer processing times as labs have fallen victim to the same problems hitting frontline NHS care and other industries, as staff are forced to stay at home after exposure to Covid. “We’ve lost some staff because of self-isolation,” Wilson acknowledged.
The Department of Health and Social Care said testing and tracing was “saving lives every single day and stopping the spread of the virus by breaking chains of transmission and helping to control outbreaks wherever they exist”. Anyone who had Covid symptoms could book home-testing PCR kits “and more booking slots are made available at testing sites each day”.
People familiar with the situation said NHS Test and Trace was ramping up laboratory operations and the Leamington Spa lab would eventually be able to process hundreds of thousands of Covid tests every day. It was also exploring options to increase capacity at other labs across the network, as well as commercial labs.