Thousands of GPs and nurses are being forced to stay off work as they cannot get tested for Covid-19, England’s test-and-trace tsar has been warned.
The Royal College of GPs has written to Dido Harding, head of the government’s £10bn test and trace programme, warning that staff absences could hit the flu vaccination drive that ministers say is vital to stop the NHS becoming overwhelmed this winter.
Patient care will suffer because family doctors and practice nurses are having to isolate at home at the same time as the reopening of schools, universities and some workplaces is leading to more people seeking an appointment, it says.
The disclosure that GPs are having trouble getting tests follows weeks of mounting concern over the number of teachers, parents of schoolage children and NHS staff who have encountered problems, with some being told to go hundreds of miles for a test.
The college’s letter comes as official figures showed that the number of tests processed in the UK fell for three days in a row between Sunday and Tuesday, culminating in just 188,865 on Tuesday – about 35,000 below the recent average and the lowest number for 13 days.
MPs have claimed the testing system in England is “collapsing” and “barely functional” because of its inability to cope with the rising demand for swab tests that has accompanied the ongoing increase in infections, which on Wednesday topped 6,000 a day in the UK for the first time since early May.
Boris Johnson has pledged to dramatically increase capacity so that 500,000 tests a day can be carried out by the end of October in a bid to curb the spread of the virus by identifying outbreaks and isolating those infected.
The Guardian reported how laboratories are facing a weeks-long delays in accessing crucial chemicals and analysing machines to enable swabs to be processed, according to the body that represents manufacturers and suppliers, putting the 500,000-test target at risk.
At prime minister’s questions in the Commons on Wednesday, Johnson faced anger and disbelief over his insistence that the performance of test and trace had no bearing on the rate of coronavirus infection, in contradiction to his previous statements that emphasised how important it was to controlling the virus. In testy exchanges with Keir Starmer the Labour leader accused him of “pretending there isn’t a problem”.
In the letter, which the Guardian has seen, the RCGP’s chair, Prof Martin Marshall, told Harding: “GPs tell us that they are struggling to access tests for themselves and their teams. As schools and workplaces reopen, driving demand for both primary care services and testing, we simply cannot afford to have practice staff having to isolate, taking them out of frontline clinical practice.
“This is particularly important given the expanded flu vaccination programme, which many practices started to deliver last weekend,” he added.
About 185,000 staff work in the 6,709 GP surgeries in England, including 44,041 family doctors, 24,012 nurses and 20,876 others involved in direct patient care, such as physiotherapists.
A recent study in the Lancet medical journal found that about 3% of frontline health workers in the UK were infected with Covid between late March and the end of April, when the pandemic was in full swing. That would suggest that about 1,200 GPs a month may have been contracting the virus.
Family doctors with a family member who is displaying symptoms are finding it particularly difficult to book an appointment to be swabbed, the college said.
In his letter Marshall also told Harding that GP surgeries are being caught up in the fallout of people with possible signs of coronavirus contacting them in desperation after failing to get a test. “GPs are being inundated with requests from patients struggling to access testing near them. It’s crucial that access to testing is available for patients who need it within accessible distances.”
They are frustrated that their only option is to refer patients to test and trace, Marshall added. “Many GPs have reported to the college that they are being inundated with queries from patients about testing who are struggling to access a test or having to travel miles to get one, the workload implications of which are significant, particularly as there is nothing GPs can do to help them.”
The Department of Health and Social Care declined to comment on surgery staff having to stay at home. It believes that as many as one in four of those seeking a test in England do not need one, and that that unnecessary demand is overloading the system. The department said that on Monday GPs were added to the list of key workers, alongside hospital staff, who should get priority for testing.
A spokesperson said: “We test NHS staff, including GPs, with symptoms as a priority. 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 225,000 a day on average over the last week.
“There has been a spike in demand in recent weeks and the message is that only people with symptoms should be requesting a test.
“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.”