Boris Johnson mounted a desperate defence of the crumbling coronavirus testing system today amid fears it is becoming impossible to keep schools open.
The PM blamed a 'huge, huge' surge in demand for chaos that has seen millions of people struggling to get checked.
And he again appeared to put the responsibility on the anxious public, saying they needed to 'follow the guidance on when they should be getting a test'.
The comments, at PMQs in the Commons, came after Matt Hancock was humiliatingly forced to admit yesterday that the mess will take 'weeks' to sort out - even though he refused to spell out the reasons for the crisis.
Despite boasting of 'Moonshot' plans to carry out 10million tests a day, Mr Hancock is now rushing to create a 'priority list'.
However, putting hospitals and care homes first raises the prospect of schools being left in limbo, with many warning they are already struggling to stay open because so many children have cold or cough symptoms.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said headteachers were obliged to order that the 'bubble has to stay at home' if a pupil or teacher in a year group had shown Covid-19 symptoms and could not get a test to prove they were negative.
'This will feel I think like lockdown by default – it will be more frustrating for parents because you can't predict whether it is going to happen,' he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
The ASCL demanded that Mr Johnson 'personally take charge of this situation in the interests of keeping our schools and colleges open, and protecting pupils and staff'.
In other developments as the coronavirus crisis threatened to cripple the country again:Government sources have warned Britons could face an even tougher lockdown within two weeks unless the Rule of Six brings down coronavirus cases; The Archbishop Bishop of Canterbury has said he is 'deeply concerned' about the impact of social distancing on family life in the run-up to Christmas; There are claims the government is scaling back on advertising for coronavirus tests in a bid to reduce demand; Analysis suggests that the coronavirus surge among young people is starting to spread to the more vulnerable older generation.
Public Health England (PHE) data reveals 23.4 cases are now diagnosed for every 100,000 people aged between 40 and 49 — up from 12.4 at the end of August. And coronavirus infection rates have nearly doubled in just a week for people in their fifties, jumping from 10.9 to 20
January – Sick travellers: During the early days of the pandemic, before the virus was known to be spreading in the UK, people could only get tested for coronavirus if they had symptoms of the disease – at the time a cough and/or a fever – and had travelled to an at-risk area or been close to someone who had.
To begin with, this at-risk area began with the city of Wuhan - the pandemic's ground zero - then later expanded to include China as a whole and other countries including Thailand, South Korea and later Italy.
March – Hospitals only: Testing was stopped for members of the public on March 12. This now-controversial move came because the virus was so out of control and rife among travellers returning home from February half-term ski trips in the Alps that there weren't enough tests to have a meaningful impact.
The only people who could get a Covid-19 test were hospital patients – those who were seriously ill – and staff working in the hospitals.
April – Key workers: In April swab testing for the public returned. Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on April 23 that key workers and their families (excluding children under five) could get tested if they had symptoms – a new persistent cough or a fever.
People who were not key workers and didn't live with one, or who didn't have one of those two symptoms, were still not allowed to get tested.
Later April – Over-65s: At the end of the month, on April 29, testing was expanded to allow anyone over the age of 65 – with symptoms – to get tested. This age group has accounted for the vast majority of coronavirus deaths in Britain and is far worse for them than for younger people.
May – Anyone with symptoms: On May 18, three weeks after the Department of Health claimed to have hit its target of doing 100,000 tests in a day – a claim that later turned out to be false – testing was expanded again.
Now, the Health Secretary said, anyone over the age of five with symptoms of Covid-19 – this list was expanded on the same day to include lost or changed senses of smell or taste – could be tested.
Later May – Under-fives: The rule was expanded again on May 27 to include under-fives, meaning anyone of any age in the UK was eligible for a test if they had Covid-19 symptoms.
This rule is still in place now – anyone with symptoms can get a test. It has never been the Government's policy to offer tests to people who don't have one of the three symptoms, but there are some exceptions, such as people taking part in studies or who have been officially referred by their employer.
July – Tests for care homes: The Government pledged to offer routine swab testing to care home staff and residents on July 3. Care homes, in which more than 14,000 people have died, suffered badly during the height of the crisis because they did not have access to tests on a large scale.
Care homes now use up around 100,000 tests per day – about half of the national capacity – as part of a scheme to test all staff once a week and residents once per month.
This system is still fraught with problems, however, and Care England's chief executive Martin Green told The Times: 'There are delays in the couriers not coming to take swabs and problems with the labs getting the results back in time...
'The testing regime needs a thorough root and branch review.'
August – Tests for schools: As schools prepared to return to class after a six-moth break through lockdown and the summer, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson pledged all schools would have access to DIY tests to send home for pupils with symptoms.
But teachers say they have not been given enough tests and that pupils and staff, unable to get tests through the buckling national testing system, are languishing at home in self-isolation without knowing whether they do or don't have Covid-19.
Jim Blakely, head at Garstang St Thomas' School in Preston, told the Today programme: 'That's what we need really urgently... a 24 hour turnaround on tests ideally, so families can get back to work and children can get back to school.'
August – 'Please get a test': Baroness Dido Harding, chief of NHS Test & Trace, urges members of the public to get tested.
Concerned that cases were not falling because people were avoiding using test and trace, she said: 'Please do play your part to stop the virus from flaring up again – this system will only work if you come forward for a test and help us to trace your contacts. So if you have symptoms, however mild, get a free test immediately.'
September – 'Stop getting so many tests': In September Health Secretary Matt Hancock issued a plea for people to stop getting tested if they didn't have coronavirus symptoms.
He said a surge in 'ineligible' people was putting strain on the testing system, which was by now buckling under the pressure of processing 200,000 swabs per day.
The Department of Health estimates that one in four tests are now taken by people who shouldn't be taking them.
Mr Hancock said on September 9: 'We have seen an increase in demand including from people who are not eligible for tests, people who don't have symptoms.'
Professor Andrew Hayward, one of the government's SAGE experts, said around half a million people every day could be expected to display symptoms similar to coroanvirus at this time of year, even before the pandemic appeared.
That would be far above the government's current claimed testing capacity of around 375,000 - although they have never carried out that many in a single day.
Prof Hayward, director of University College London's Institute of Epidemiology & Health, said: 'The background to this of course is that we would expect the demand and the capacity to need to rise quite rapidly over the autumn and winter as the number of people who develop symptoms that could be Covid increase.
'Some of our research has shown that at least in the winter, you would expect about half a million people a day to develop symptoms that are typical of Covid – and that would be in a winter when there was no Covid – so you can see that the capacity requirements will have to increase dramatically if we are going to keep up.'
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, amid fears 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 there were no queues but she was turned away as for not having booked.
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.
There have been reports that Mr Hancock is considering making GPs 'gatekeepers' for the system.
However, that could put surgeries under massive strain, with complaints that appointment are already extremely difficult to access in many areas.
Long queues were seen outside testing centres today , involving many desperate people who had failed to get an online appointment but turned up anyway.
Lines formed in Southend – but in a sign of the general chaos – other test centres such as in Leeds were nearly empty.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, has called on the Government to prioritise the education sector for the allocation of tests.
In a letter to the schools minister, Dr Roach said the union had heard of approximately 600 pupils being told to self-isolate in Bury and the situation was 'increasingly out of control'.
'Teachers, support staff and children and young people are unable to access tests where they have Covid-19 symptoms,' he wrote.
'Employers are struggling to deal with the implications and consequences.'
He added: 'We have reports that schools are unable to cope with a situation that is becoming increasingly out of control.'
The founder of Oasis Community Learning, which is responsible for 31,500 children at 52 academies across England, said 1,200 pupils had been sent home over the first six days of the new school year.
Writing in The Sun, Steve Chalke added: 'The reason is either pupils or teachers have symptoms and can't return until they get a negative test result.'
Concerns are 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.'
Mr Johnson swiped at Keir Starmer for failing to face him at PMQs today after the Labour leader revealed one of his children has tested negative for coronavirus.
The Labour leader said he was 'pleased and relieved' to be out of self-isolation after two days waiting for the result.
However, he skipped the showdown in the Commons this lunchtime, with deputy Angela Rayner standing in.
She raised the case of 'Keir' at the despatch box, saying he had needed to miss work because he had not received the result of a test in time.
But Mr Johnson pointed out that Sir Keir was now out of quarantine. 'I don't know quite why he is not here.'
The premier defended the shambolic testing arrangements, despite warnings that schools are on the brink of becoming 'unsustainable' due to delays.
'Eighty-nine per cent of those that have in person tests get (results) the next day,' Mr Johnson said. 'We are working very fast to turn around all the test requests that we get.'
Struggling to explain the causes of the problems, Mr Johnson said: 'The British people, quite understandably, are responding to that system, with a huge, huge surge in demand.'
He insisted it was 'important that everybody follows the guidance about when they should be getting a test'.
The most up-to-date PHE data, which was released on Friday, clearly shows cases are spiralling across every age group. People in their twenties — who aren't as vulnerable to the disease and are likely to escape death or serious illness — are driving the spike with an infection rate of 46, which has doubled in the last three weeks
Covid-19 cases are soaring among middle-aged people in England and have risen by upwards of 90 per cent in a fortnight as the outbreak continues to grow, official figures show.
Public Health England (PHE) data reveals 23.4 cases are now diagnosed for every 100,000 people aged between 40 and 49 — up from 12.4 at the end of August. And coronavirus infection rates have nearly doubled in just a week for people in their fifties, jumping from 10.9 to 20.
The most up-to-date PHE data, which was released on Friday, clearly shows cases are increasing across every age group. People in their twenties — who aren't as vulnerable to the disease and are likely to escape death or serious illness — are driving the spike with an infection rate of 46, which has doubled in three weeks.
Fears of a second wave are growing as the number of Britons being diagnosed with Covid-19 each day has topped 3,000 for the first time since May. Ministers have also been spooked by spiralling outbreaks in Spain and France and rising hospital admissions on the continent.
Hospital admissions — another way of measuring the severity of the pandemic — have doubled in England over the past nine days. More than 150 newly-infected patients required NHS treatment on Sunday, up from a rolling seven-day average of 52 on the last day of August.
Ms Rayner called on the Prime Minister to 'get some skates on' in delivering testing and PPE to care homes ahead of winter.
'The Prime Minister has put his faith in Operation Moonshot, but meanwhile on planet Earth there are no NHS tests available for several high-infection areas,' she said.
She asked: 'Can the Prime Minister confirm yes or no, do all care homes in this country have weekly tests?'
Mr Johnson replied: 'Yes, to the best of my knowledge care homes in this country… should get weekly tests for all staff members and tests every 28 days for those who are in the care homes, the residents in the care homes.'
The premier also complained that Labour was 'carping from the sidelines' while the government tried to deal with 'one of the most difficult dilemmas' ever faced by any administration.
Appearing before the education select committee today, Gavin Williamson revealed he had met the government's Test & Trace tsar Baroness Harding this week to insist there must be 'swift' screening available for schools.
'We've always been conscious that with children coming back into schools there was going to be a situation where people would need more access to testing. That is why we ensured those deliveries of tests to every school in England. That is why this morning we opened the ordering system, for schools to be able to order new tests, for them to be able to get those directly from the NHS,' he said.
Mr Williamson said he had stressed to Lady Harding that testing for schools must be a 'priority'.
'Just this week I met with baroness Harding from test and trace and the NHS, highlighting some concerns that schools have had in terms of the turnaround and to ensure that teachers are able to get tested as swiftly as possible, and they are able to be in a position to be back to teaching at the earliest possible stage.'
Mr Williamson dodged questions over whether the government could guarantee testing results for schools within 48 hours, but added: 'The reason I had my meeting with Baroness Harding, as you can imagine, is to continue to emphasise the importance and the priority that we have to put on all our schools and education settings, about how vital it is that we always ensure there is swift testing available.'
Committee chairman Robert Halfon told BBC Radio 4's World at One later that he had been told schools would be a priority under Mr Hancock's new scheme.
'As I understand it, schools will be on the priority list,' Mr Halfon told the programme.
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.
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.
There have also been rumours of logistical problems at laboratories.
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.
A quiet looking drive in Covid testing site at the former Tower Ballroom in Edgbaston, Birmingham today
Another testing centre in Leeds stood virtually empty today amid criticism of the systems
The Archbishop Bishop of Canterbury has warned against coronavirus restrictions being imposed centrally and said he is 'deeply concerned' about the impact of the 'rule of six' on family life.
The Most Rev Justin Welby said the Government had 'determined the daily details of our lives' during the coronavirus lockdown in a way 'few of us have experienced', as he argued instead for localism.
He said Britain has an 'addiction to centralisation' and argues that the country should take on the attitude: 'Only do centrally what must be done centrally'.
The Archbishop is also said to be concerned about the impact of the 'rule of six' - banning gatherings of more than six people indoors and outdoors - on 'the vulnerable, the needy, the poor and the elderly' in Britain.
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. The claimed daily capacity in the system is much higher at 374,000.
In a round of broadcast interviews this morning, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said testing capacity was 'ramping up' to deal with the demand. He said Mr Hancock would put forward the 'priority' list 'in the next few days'.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Buckland said: 'I'm not shying away from the current issue but what I'm trying to explain is that rather than us sitting back and pretending all is well, we have accepted the scale of the challenge, we're ramping up the test centres, we have increased laboratory capacity, new labs coming on-stream so we can get that quick turnaround.'
He added: 'The fact the Government kept on saying about the dangers of a second wave, at all times the Prime Minister, all of us, were absolutely focused on the dangers of the second wave – we have seen what's happening in France.
'We absolutely are onto this in terms of understanding that through the autumn, if we are to get the balance between getting the economy back on track and getting children into school, then all of us now have a special responsibility to follow all those guidelines and do whatever it takes to beat this virus.'
The testing meltdown has come in the context of a spike in coronavirus cases, with fears that the situation is on the verge of spiralling out of control again.
Britons could face an even tougher lockdown within two weeks unless the Rule of Six brings down coronavirus cases, it was claimed today.
Ministers and government officials insist they are ready to take more draconian steps to stop the spread, despite a wave of criticism.
Options on the table could range from curfews to closing pubs - although there is a determination that schools will stay open.
Headteachers could stop staff from travelling abroad during the half-term, it has