Coronavirus tests in England will be rationed as the Government struggles to get to grips with soaring demand amid warnings that the country faces a tough six months in the battle with Covid-19.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there would be “prioritisation” of tests for people with acute clinical need and those in social care settings as he acknowledged “operational challenges” in the system.
He faced a barrage of complaints in the Commons about people being forced to travel long distances or even enter false addresses in the hope of securing a test.
On Tuesday evening Bolton NHS Foundation Trust said a “high volume of patients” had turned up at accident and emergency asking for a coronavirus test.
The trust tweeted: “A&E is currently very busy, managing a high volume of patients who have arrived requesting a #COVID19 test
“Patients are requested not to turn up to the hospital.”
Bolton has the highest infection rate in England.
NHS leaders have called for health workers and patients to be given priority after Government sources admitted that demand for tests is currently far outstripping supply.
Mr Hancock said an updated prioritisation list would set out who will be at the front of the queue.
It comes after anyone suffering symptoms, regardless of where they work or live, were urged to book tests in recent months and amid concerns that the return of children to school – and a Government drive to get employees back in the workplace – could increase testing demand.
“We have seen a sharp rise in people coming forward for a test, including those who are not eligible,”
Mr Hancock said.
“As demand has risen, so we are having to prioritise once again and I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation. They are not always comfortable, but they are important.”
Acute clinical care is the top priority, with social care next on the list and currently receiving more than 100,000 tests a day.
Mr Hancock said prioritisation was “a choice that we must make”.
Government sources acknowledged there was no accurate data on how many people who are not eligible for a test have tried to book one.
Mr Hancock admitted that it might be “a matter of weeks” before the testing problems are resolved.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth claimed Mr Hancock was “losing control of this virus”.
Mr Hancock told MPs that the average distance travelled to a test site is now 5.8 miles and defended the Government’s efforts.
But in the Commons:
Twickenham MP Munira Wilson said her constituents had been told to enter a postcode as if they lived in Aberdeen in order to secure a test near their south-west London homes.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said constituents in his Surrey constituency had been sent to Bristol or the Isle of Wight for tests.
Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said 90 people were turned away from a walk-in test centre in east London by staff from Deloitte, which runs the service.
Downing Street was forced to deny reports that tests are not available in the worst-hit parts of England.
A No 10 spokesman said:
“Our capacity continues to be targeted to where it is most needed, which is why booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for people with symptoms.”
The testing situation was discussed at the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, who has been advising ministers, said the speed at which more people would need tests had been underestimated and warned that the problem could get worse.
Sir John told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think they are definitely behind the curve in terms of getting the necessary tests for what we need today.”
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said the health service in England had been hit by staff being off work who were unable to get a test or were forced to wait for results.
He said the NHS “simply can’t spare members of staff waiting for tests not being able to come into work” and patients unable to be tested.
Professor Alan McNally, director of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham, who helped set up the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab, told BBC Breakfast there were “clearly underlying issues which nobody wants to tell us about”, plus a surge in demand for tests.
Leading figures in Whitehall are braced for a difficult winter with the possibility of further increases in Covid-19 cases among the more vulnerable elderly population.
“This is going to be a problem for six months and I think anyone who thinks otherwise is extremely optimistic,”
a senior source said.
While the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 was relatively low, the source said “the direction of travel is only going to go one way, in my view between now and the winter, which is up”.
“And as that happens, the risk is that we get bigger numbers,” the source warned, potentially leading to an increase in the number of deaths.
The Government said that as of 9am on Tuesday, there had been a further 3,105 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
A further 27 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday. This brings the UK total to 41,664.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show there have now been 57,500 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.
Published: 16/09/2020 by Radio NewsHub