Britain's testing fiasco leaves doctors and nurses unable to get checked

Britain's Covid-19 testing fiasco has left doctors and nurses unable to work because they can't get checked for the illness, preventing the NHS getting back to normal.

NHS staff are having to leave the frontline to self-isolate because they or family members cannot book a test. NHS Providers says that if the shortage is not addressed soon it will wreak havoc on hospitals as virus cases continue to escalate. 

In another humiliating blow to the testing system, headteachers have warned that schools — which were closed for months because of the pandemic — will 'grind to a halt' if teachers can't get tested quickly.

One in Preston said this morning that they already have two staff self-isolating at home and unable to get tested, along with 10 children. 

Health officials have blamed the crisis – which experts fear will rumble on for weeks – on a staffing shortage in laboratories. Desperate bosses have now admitted they may have to hire students to plug gaps in the rota in the face of sky-high demand.  

But government sources say the actual cause of the crisis is a 'closely guarded secret in Whitehall'.

Backlog in the system means government ministers are now considering restricting coronavirus tests and refusing 'frivolous' requests from people who don't need to be swabbed.  

Patients have been told to travel hundreds of miles, even to different countries, for tests because there are none available nearby, and swabs have also had to be flown to Germany and for analysis.

The blunder was unveiled by an investigation by the LBC radio station yesterday that found there were no test bookings available at any of the country's ten coronavirus hotspots including Bolton, Salford, Bradford and Manchester.

But Priti Patel today denied that tests were unavailable in the country's worst-hit areas. The Home Secretary told BBC Breakfast today that she has seen with her own eyes that swabs are available in towns hit by local lockdown rules. 

Oxford University's Sir John Bell, who has been advising Number 10 on testing, says the testing fiasco has likely been caused by a 'second wave' of Covid-19, triggering a surge in demand for tests.

Professor Alan McNally, who helped set up the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab, said a 'perfect storm' of events have crashed the testing system. He described the situation as 'worrying' because it has happened before the winter and admitted there were 'clearly underlying issues which nobody wants to tell us about'.  

An investigation by the LBC radio station yesterday found there were no test bookings available at any of the country’s ten coronavirus hotspots including Bolton, Salford, Bradford and Manchester

An investigation by the LBC radio station yesterday found there were no test bookings available at any of the country's ten coronavirus hotspots including Bolton, Salford, Bradford and Manchester

In other coronavirus news:

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned Britain faces an alcohol 'addiction crisis' because the number of high-risk drinkers doubled during lockdown; Unemployment levels in the UK surged to 4.1 per cent in the second quarter of this year, from May to July, with 1.4million people out of work and 2.4m on benefits; The new 'rule of six' ban on gatherings of more than six people was not heeded on its first day as young people were yesterday pictured in parks and beaches; Coronavirus cases are rising in all but 17 areas of England, after more than half were seeing rates fall just two weeks ago, data from PHE has revealed; The line-up for the next series of the Great British Bake Off has been announced and during filming contestants had to quarantine for nine days before they started while everything on set was regularly deep cleaned.

The testing shortage has come days after Downing Street committed to 'Operation Moonshot', an ambitious plan to eventually carry out 10million tests a day to track the virus in real time.

Matt Hancock has repeatedly spoken of 'ramping up' testing capacity and boasted that Britain now does more swab tests than many of its neighbours. 

But the system seems to be cracking under the pressure of carrying out the approximately 200,000 swabs per day – before 'Moonshot' has even begun. 

But today, NHS Providers – an organisation which represents hospital staff – warns that the backlog is hitting the health service's ability to get back to normal.

Chief executive Chris Hopson said: 'It's clear there are capacity problems with the testing regime.

'Trust leaders from Bristol, Leeds and London have all raised concerns about the lack of testing availability, leading to greater levels of staff absence.

'NHS trusts are working in the dark – they don't know why these shortages are occurring, how long they are likely to last, how geographically widespread they are likely to be and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests.' 

Nurses, doctors and other vital hospital staff are being told to take time off work and self-isolate because they might have coronavirus but can't get tested.

This is wasting NHS staff time, experts say, at a time when it is crucial that hospitals don't face any more problems.

There are already tens of thousands of patients who are overdue medical procedures and appointments that had to be postponed or cancelled because of the lockdown, and hospitals are scrambling to get through a massive backlog of patients before winter hits.

Chris Hopson added that the NHS 'simply can’t spare members of staff waiting for tests, not being able to come into work'.

Sir John Bell, himself a medicine professor and qualified doctor, said the government was not properly prepared for another surge in suspected cases and tests.

He said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: 'A month ago they had spare capacity in testing – significant spare capacity – but I think what has been underestimated was the speed at which the second wave would arrive.

'But also the pressure put on the system from children returning to school, and the testing demands associated with that, and people increasingly out and about.

'So, I think they are definitely behind the curve in terms of getting the necessary tests for what we need today.' 

The NHS is not the only place struggling to get enough tests – schools are also feeling the impact of delays in the nationwide system.

The new school year in England started just last week for most children but there are already reports of staff, pupils and even entire classes going into isolation after Covid scares.

One headteacher in Preston, Lancashire, said he has two staff and 10 children already stuck at home because of the virus. The staff, he said, struggled to get tested.

Jim Blakely, head at Garstang St Thomas' School, told the Today programme: 'At the moment I’ve got two members of staff not here.  

'My Year 4 teacher was sent home last Wednesday due to Covid symptoms, a persistent cough, but there were no tests available on Wednesday.

'So he kept trying to book during the day and in the evening, and there was some test available in some strange places, and these are the same places that parents in my school have been directed to like Aberdeen and Llandudno.

'Not only are they miles away, but they are in Wales and Scotland. There is very little local testing.'

Mr Blakely's account matches dozens of others which have seen people say the test booking system has tried to send them to centres tens or hundreds of miles from home.

He added: 'This is going to be a really bumpy ride unless there is quick testing near schools. 

'And I think that’s what we need really urgently, and a 24 hour turnaround on tests ideally, so families can get back to work and children can get back to school.'    

Care home bosses have also criticised ministers for failing to deliver on their promise to prioritise testing in the vulnerable sector ahead of the winter, amid fears it could be ravaged by a second wave of Covid-19.

NO TESTS AVAILABLE 'IN 10 OF ENGLAND'S COVID-19 HOTSPOTS' 

No walk-in, drive-in or postal coronavirus tests are available for people with symptoms of the disease in England's 10 outbreak hotspots, it was claimed yesterday.

Swabs are not available in Bolton, which is fighting the largest outbreak of the virus in the country with an infection rate of 122 cases for every 100,000 people.

The Government website where testing slots are booked also shows there are no tests available in Salford, Bradford, Blackburn, Oldham, Preston, Pendle, Rochdale, Tameside and Manchester, according to LBC radio. 

When postcodes in each area are put into the testing system it allegedly comes up with the message: 'This service is currently very busy. More tests should be available later.'

The leader of the council in Bolton, which has Britain's highest infection rate, said there were 'major flaws' with the online booking system and that it was out of the council's control because the Government runs it. He said the issue was 'unacceptable'. 

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Department of Health officials have already made a desperate appeal for staff to Britain's biomedical sector, admitting it needs 400 technicians immediately to help fix the testing fiasco. 

The appeal, written by Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak — an expert in medicine at Glasgow University who was drafted in to help, revealed that bosses would hire 'recent graduates' with a biology degree to work in labs to analyse coronavirus test samples. 

But she also revealed that health chiefs would be open to hiring current students with 'some previous lab experience' to fill holes in rotas on a part-time basis, The Telegraph reports.  

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon piled pressure on the Government yesterday by claiming the backlog was also affecting Scottish patients.

Test results are processed in one of seven Lighthouse Labs across the country in areas including Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, Loughborough in Leicestershire, Cambridge and Glasgow.

Miss Sturgeon is concerned that the backlog in England is having a knock-on effect in the Glasgow lab, leading to delays in Scotland.

She said yesterday: 'We've been raising these concerns with the UK Government.'

A senior government source last night dismissed her claims as 'wrong', adding: 'It is disappointing the First Minister has decided to play politics with the pandemic.

'We have been working with the Scottish government through the weekend to ensure they have the support on testing they need. The First Minister should get her own house in order before blaming others.' 

Yesterday it was revealed that swabs are not available in Bolton, which is fighting the largest outbreak of the virus in the country with an infection rate of 122 cases for every 100,000 people.

The Government website where testing slots are booked also shows there are no tests available in Salford, Bradford, Blackburn, Oldham, Preston, Pendle, Rochdale, Tameside and Manchester, according to LBC radio. 

Coronavirus tests are currently unavailable in the ten centres of the UK's coronavirus outbreak, reports LBC. Pictured above is a testing centre in Bolton, northern England

Coronavirus tests are currently unavailable in the ten centres of the UK's coronavirus outbreak, reports LBC. Pictured above is a testing centre in Bolton, northern England

Those trying to get tests in the ten UK hotspots are being greeted with this message

Those trying to get tests in the ten UK hotspots are being greeted with this message

NEARLY 500,000 PATIENTS HAVE BEEN WAITING AT LEAST SIX WEEKS FOR KEY TESTS

Nearly half a million patients have been waiting six weeks or more for key diagnostic tests to detect cancer, heart attacks and other serious conditions.

The figures have increased 12-fold in just a year as hospitals struggle with a post-Covid backlog.

Charities fear the long waits will have a devastating impact on NHS patients, particularly those who have cancer which may become untreatable.

Separate data shows that the number of patients having cancer treatment is down by a quarter on the same time last year. The total has fallen by 6,647 to 21,599.

Yesterday the Mail revealed that hospital admissions had plummeted across seven serious illnesses.

There is a growing backlog of patients who were unable to receive treatment at the height of the pandemic and who are now at risk of serious complications.

This number is continuing to rise because social distancing and infection control measures mean hospitals can deal with only a limited number of patients.

The latest NHS data shows that 489,647 patients had been waiting more than six weeks for one of 15 key diagnostic tests in July, the last month for which there are figures.

A shocking 291,982 of them had been waiting at least 13 weeks.

By comparison, in July 2019, just 40,099 had been waiting six weeks or more and 5,675 for at least 13 weeks.

Michelle Mitchell of Cancer Research UK said: 'Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on cancer services and the lives of cancer patients. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment will not be even more impacted by any future waves of Covid-19.'

Alex Norris, a Labour health spokesman, said: 'Patients waiting for these tests cannot afford for the Government to be as slow as they have been in other areas. Some of these tests will be used to diagnose cancer, and for those patients, we know that early diagnosis leads to better treatment and survival.'

An NHS spokesman said: 'Hospitals have been working round the clock throughout the pandemic so that patients can continue to receive vital tests and treatment while staying safe between March and July.'

The backlog is also affecting routine surgery such as hip and knee operations and NHS figures last week showed that 2.1million patients had been waiting at least 18 weeks.

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When postcodes in each area are put into the testing system it allegedly comes up with the message: 'This service is currently very busy. More tests should be available later.'

The leader of the council in Bolton, which has Britain's highest infection rate, said there were 'major flaws' with the online booking system and that it was out of the council's control because the Government runs it. He said the issue was 'unacceptable'. 

Ms Patel said it was 'wrong to say' that there were no tests available after she was quizzed about the long delays in trying to book a test in Bolton where the infection rate is the highest in England.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, she said: 'Tests are available, you’ve heard me say, particularly in local lockdown areas, I’ve seen this myself, I’ve seen the teams that have been working on this.

'Mobile testing is going in, capacity is going into local areas where lockdowns have been undertaken and are taking place.

'I think it is wrong to say tests are not available, new book-in slots are being made available every single day, mobile testing units are being made available.

'And on top of that home testing kits are being issued across the country but specifically in local lockdown areas.'

But the Home Secretary added: 'Clearly there is much more work that needs to be undertaken with Public Health England and the actual public health bodies in those particular local areas.

'As a Government we work with Public Health England to surge where there is demand in local hotspot areas and we continue to do that.'

On access to testing, she said the majority of tests are available within a 10-mile radius.

'It seems to me there’ll be extreme cases where people can’t get to test locations within that radius but that doesn’t mean that Public Health England are not working night and day to boost capacity,' she added. 

Head teachers have also warned schools will also be hit by

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