England's swabbing capacity was reached three weeks ago, top expert claims

England's testing fiasco first emerged three weeks ago when the government ran out of swabs after teachers and children returned to school, universities re-opened and parents dashed back to offices, a top expert has claimed as the crisis continues to unfold.

Dr Duncan Robertson, a policy analyst at Loughborough University, spotted that on-line booking was taken off-line in badly-hit areas of the country 'way back in late August' to 'throttle demand'. He condemned No 10's failure to ramp up capacity over the summer.

He revealed that Pillar 2 capacity — tests given to the public — was exceeded on August 23 and 'still hasn't been fixed'. And data shows the capacity for Pillar 4 swabs — ones given out in surveillance schemes to track the crisis — has been 'vastly' surpassed over the past month.

In a bid to resolve the mess and suppress demand, Whitehall sources have claimed that Downing Street has rolled back its advertising campaign which saw posters and TV advertisements urging people who have symptoms of the virus to get a test. Officials now estimate around a quarter of people who get swabbed are not eligible.

It comes as it was revealed that dozens of residents with tell-tale Covid-19 symptoms in Birmingham — which has one of the worst infection rates in the country — were yesterday sent to a deserted car park to get swabbed, after many battled online for hours to get booked for a test.

Parents, teachers and children face being put to the back of the queue for Covid tests as Matt Hancock admitted yesterday swabs will have to be rationed. The Health Secretary said a 'priority list' would ensure care homes and hospitals have enough, averting problems with staffing and the need to cancel operations.

But it comes at the expense of millions of others, with warnings issued that the UK was being put into 'lockdown by default' due to the Government's abject failure to get ready for winter despite the pandemic beginning six months ago.

Hundreds of schools have been partially or completely closed because of coronavirus cases — both proven and suspected — leading to fears of a domino effect, resulting in parents not being able to go to work and the return of empty offices.

Here's how Britain's testing fiasco is unfolding:

Government's 'Moonshot' testing scheme to administer 10million tests a day will be reached by counting separately up to 50 results from a single test, according to reports;  People in some of Britain's worst affected areas, including Bolton, Greater Manchester and Bradford, say they are unable to get a coronavirus test and, if they do get a booking, are asked to drive miles from their home; But residents in areas with smaller outbreaks, like Cambridge, said their testing sites were empty;  Government hit its capacity for tests in late August, a top expert has claimed;  There are mounting warnings that the testing fiasco could force Britain into 'lockdown by default' as ministers lose control of the virus; Britons face 10pm curfews and pubs may be forced to shut in two weeks amid spirralling coronavirus cases, reports claim; Coronavirus cases among people in their 40s and 50s rise by 90 per cent since the end of August, reveals Public Health England data;

Testing capacity for swabs was reached in England three weeks ago, Dr Duncan Robertson, a policy analyst at Loughborough university has said. Pictured above are people queuing for a test in Southend-on-Sea

Testing capacity for swabs was reached in England three weeks ago, Dr Duncan Robertson, a policy analyst at Loughborough university has said. Pictured above are people queuing for a test in Southend-on-Sea

Hundreds are seen queuing to receive a coronavirus test in Southend, London, yesterday

Hundreds are seen queuing to receive a coronavirus test in Southend, London, yesterday

This graph shows capacity for coronavirus tests by demand. The capacity (red) is shown crossing over the demand (blue) in September

This graph shows capacity for coronavirus tests by demand. The capacity (red) is shown crossing over the demand (blue) in September

Government scales back testing advertising campaign

The Department of Health has scaled back its campaign calling for those suffering symptoms of coronavirus to get a test, according to reports.

It is just one of several measures being taken as authorities grapple with a surge in demand for tests as people return to schools, offices and universities.

PoliticsHome reports a Government source admitting changes to the booking website and the scaling back of testing appointments in low-prevalence areas is also been used to help tackle the crisis. 

Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth accused Matt Hancock of 'losing control of this virus' in the Commons yesterday.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Hancock said: 'Well, the good news, is that capacity for testing is at a record high.'

He has previously blamed the testing crisis on spiralling demand, and said people are asking for tests when they do not have symptoms of coronavirus.

Officials have also said that the problems are due to a lack of capacity in labs, with adequate appointments being available at testing centres.

An LBC investigation revealed earlier this week that there were no coronavirus tests available in the top ten coronavirus hotspots in the UK.

Those trying to access tests from Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle, Greater Manchester, and other areas, were being greeted with a message saying the service is 'very busy' and being advised to check back later. 

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Writing on Twitter, Dr Robertson says it is 'not easy' to see that testing capacity has been reached on the Government's coronavirus dashboard, where new cases and deaths are also reported.

'To see what has (and is) going wrong, you have to look at the data,' he said.

'You can extract a spreadsheet. I have only added one column, the percentage of pillar 2 (swabbing) used each day. And there we have it, 23 August - capacity was exceeded in England exactly three weeks ago, and it still hasn't been fixed.'

Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen - which is one of the UK's coronavirus hotspots - said last week that national capacity for testing is 'not keeping pace' with demand.

'In Blackburn with Darwen, even at the height of local intervention measures in late August 2020, online testing booking was periodically taken off line to "throttle demand" at times where the labs processing capacity was overwhelmed,' he said.

'This makes locally sustaining adequate population testing levels very difficult.'

A government source has told PoliticsHome that, in the face of mounting demand for tests, the Department of Health has cut back on adverts asking people to get a test.

Changes to the booking website and the scaling back of testing appointments in low-prevalence areas will also be used to help manage demand for tests.

Matt Hancock has previously blamed the Government's testing crisis on people asking for a test when they don't have symptoms of coronavirus.

He claimed that there has been a surge of 25 per cent in these demands, and called for only those suffering symptoms of the virus to get a test.

He told the Commons yesterday that Britain's so-called 'world beating' testing capacity 'is at a record high'.

'Yesterday, we processed 9,278 tests just in pillar 2 - so outside of the NHS testing capacity - in just those top 10 local authority areas,' he said.

He added that the hold-up was 'less than a day's capacity' caused by 'operational challenges' in laboratories. 

Capacity for coronavirus swabbing tests currently stands at around 225,000 a day. More 'lighthouse' labs are set to get up and running in the coming weeks, expanding the Government's ability to test people for coronavirus.

There have been reports that lab capacity for processing tests has been reduced by students working in them returning to their studies at the start of the academic year.

Mr Hancock announced this morning a rationing plan for coronavirus testing will be pushed out in the coming days amid a mounting backlog of swabs.

NHS workers and care home staff are set to be at the front of the queue, with school children and parents pushed to the back.

A woman uses an umbrella to shelter from the sun as she waits for a coronavirus test outside a community centre in Bury

A woman uses an umbrella to shelter from the sun as she waits for a coronavirus test outside a community centre in Bury

Heath Secretary Matt Hancock speaking in the House of Commons, London

Heath Secretary Matt Hancock speaking in the House of Commons, London

Government may add several results from one test to reach 'moonshot' target, report claims

The Government plans to combine up to 50 results from a single test in order to reach its 10million-a-day 'moonshot' target, it has been claimed.

The method' known as pooled testing, involves combining small amounts of all swabs in a batch in one test tube.

If no coronavirus is detected, all the patients are deemed negative.

But if any sign of the virus is detected, each swab will have to be tested individually.

The technique is meant to save time and resources, reports The Telegraph, but could end up using additional lab time as only those with coronavirus symptoms are meant to get a test.

A Government source told the newspaper: 'Pooled testing is something we have been looking at, in theory testing batches of 10 to 50 at one time.'

The method is being used in some parts of the NHS, including North Devon District hospital. 

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The Government's decision comes despite months where it has asked anyone showing symptoms of the virus to get a test, and after the long summer.

The plans raise the prospect of people suffering from the symptoms of the virus being denied tests.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said today the Government will explain their 'prioritisation' plan 'over the next few days'.

'It has to be the NHS first and then social care,' he said.

'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.'

The Government is planning a 'moonshot' testing scheme for the UK with a target of 10million tests a day.

The Daily Telegraph reports that its target will be reached by combining up to 50 results from a single test.

The method, known as pooled testing, sees up to 50 swabs tested in the same batch.

If no sign of the virus is detected then all are deemed negative. But if the virus is identified then each swab will be tested individually.

A Government source said: 'Pooled testing is something we have been looking at, in theory testing batches of 10 to 50 at one time.'

It comes after massive queues built-up outside testing centres in England yesterday as it was revealed that up to 250,000 people in the UK are waiting for test results and should be self-isolating.

Long lines were seen at sites in Southend, Bury, Birmingham and Manchester yesterday as the Health Secretary faced a grilling in parliament over his handling of the crisis.

Outraged residents in some parts of the country have complained about being forced to drive hundreds of miles for a coronavirus test. 

Parents, teachers and children face being put to the back of the queue for Covid tests as Matt Hancock admitted yesterday swabs will have to be rationed. 

In a humiliating climbdown, the Health Secretary said a 'priority list' would ensure environments such as care homes and hospitals would have enough.

However, it comes at the expense of millions of others, with warnings issued that the UK was being put into 'lockdown by default' as a result of the shortage of tests.

Hundreds of schools have been partially or completely closed because of coronavirus cases - both proven and suspected - leading to fears of a domino effect, resulting in parents not being able to go to work and the return of empty offices.

More than one in 10 children were not in classes last Thursday, figures show, as the National Governance Association claims the growing number of pupils and staff awaiting tests could cripple parent confidence in getting their children back to school.

It comes as teachers will today hold a protest outside the Department for Education, arguing that the lack of tests, and the inability of staff, pupils and parents to get to the front of the queue, is stopping schools returning to normal.

One told the i that they had been unable to book a test for their daughter on Sunday either online or on the phone despite trying on an hourly basis. 

Her efforts involved driving to a local test centre, which proved to be closed, and then to Gatwick, where despite being the only car waiting, she was turned away as they were only available 'for those who have booked'.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Telegraph: 'We are getting reports of bubbles of 250 children being sent home. People on the ground are telling me this is not sustainable and they cannot keep their schools open.

'Children are being sent home who cannot get tests, and parents are being forced to take two weeks off to look after them. We will end up in an effective lockdown. There is an escalating sense that we will end up with a return to lockdown by default.' 

In a torrid session in the Commons, the Health Secretary was also forced to admit the current critical shortages could drag on for weeks.

The public had been told to seek tests 'if in doubt'. But checks by the Mail found that 46 of the 49 virus hotspots – including Bolton, Bradford and Oldham – had no swabs to offer. 

Preston, one of the three areas  providing tests said they were not available until January – and 22 miles away.

Mr Hancock is considering making GPs 'gatekeepers' for the system, according to ITV's Robert Peston. This would mean patients would get a test only on their say-so. Peston also reported that if the rule of six did not flatten the pandemic curve within two weeks further lockdown measures would be brought in.

Long queues were seen outside testing centres yesterday, involving many desperate people who had failed to get an online appointment but turned up anyway.

A healthcare worker was one of around 150 outside a walk-in centre in Bury, where infection rates have reached an alarming 77.5 per 100,000 residents.

She shaded herself with an umbrella at the site where staff say they have been 'overwhelmed'.

Lines also formed in Birmingham and Southend – but in a sign of the general chaos – other test centres were nearly empty. Concerns were also growing about the Government's seven 'lighthouse labs' and their ability to process results, due to shortages of staff and equipment.

One MP said her constituents in Twickenham, south-west London, had been told to travel to Aberdeen to book a test.

Munira Wilson, Lib Dem health spokesman, said: 'We were promised a world-beating test and trace system but what we have at the moment is an utter shambles.'

Ministers first faced a crisis over testing early on in the first wave of Covid when a campaign by the Mail led to Mr Hancock vowing to deliver 100,000 tests a day.

That pledge was later raised to 200,000, then 500,000 by the end of October and now four million by next February under the ambitious 'Operation Moonshot'.

However, the system has been thrown back into chaos in recent days because demand for tests has massively increased, overwhelming laboratories.

Staff direct vehicles entering a coronavirus testing centre in Gloucester

Staff direct vehicles entering a coronavirus testing centre in Gloucester

The surge has resulted from a rise in daily cases, the return of schools, the rolling-out of regular swabs to care homes and an increase in outbreaks.

As a result, there has been a deluge of complaints that people cannot access tests locally or that they have to wait too long to find out if they are positive or negative. Schools have been closed while teachers wait for results on sick pupils.

NHS leaders warn of a crisis in hospitals, with medics forced to stay away from work and operations cancelled.

Figures yesterday showed that 227,075 tests were carried out across the UK in the previous 24 hours – but that was down from 231,969 on Monday and from 250,839 on Sunday.

Mr Hancock was yesterday summoned to the Commons to answer an urgent question from Labour on the fiasco. Asked whether the issue would be sorted this week, he replied: 'I think we will be able to solve this problem in a matter of weeks.'

Last night former health secretary Ken Clarke accused ministers of 'irritating' the public and spreading 'disillusion' by making impossible promises on testing. 

Citing testing problems, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said: 'This is completely unacceptable and totally undermines track and trace so I have raised my concerns with ministers to push for action to be taken as a matter of urgency.'

Dr Layla McCay of the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare organisations, said: 'Our members are telling us that lack of access to testing for staff is a major barrier to them delivering services and achieving targets set to restore services.

'We seem light years away from the world-beating test-and-trace system that we were promised. Every week we wait for these problems to be resolved is a week of some NHS staff not being able to go to work, and a week that makes it harder to identify and contain Covid-19 surges.'

Mr Hancock is preparing to publish a 'priority list' within the next few days which will be used as a rulebook for testing centres in determining who is offered a swab.

This was the queue at Southend's Covid testing site at 8am, as hundreds of people tried to get a test

This was the queue at Southend's Covid testing site at 8am, as hundreds of people tried to get a test

Currently anyone, in theory, should be offered one regardless of whether they are a key worker or even have symptoms.

But the list will spell out to centres that if there are shortages of testing capacity, priority will be given to NHS and care home staff as well as to patients, key workers and school pupils. Anyone else faces being

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