The testing fiasco is on the brink of dooming the country to a de facto lockdown with keeping schools open ‘unsustainable’, ministers were warned today.
Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock are facing fury after the system descended into a shambles, with millions of people struggling to get checked.
The Health Secretary 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 beyond blaming ‘ineligible’ members of the public for seeking tests.
Despite boasting of ‘Moonshot’ plans to carry out 10million tests a day, Mr Hancock conceded that the government will have to create a ‘priority list’ to make sure hospitals and care homes get essential screening.
However, the move raises the prospect of schools being sent to the back of the queue, with many already warning they are 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.
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.’
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
Britons ‘could face curfews within weeks’
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.
‘Lockdown is the only thing that we know works, to be frank,’ one government science adviser told ITV.
The dire prospect has been raised amid fears that the disease is on the verge of spiralling out of control again.
Although cases have spiked over 3,000 a day, it had been mainly among younger people, who are less likely to be badly affected.
However, alarm has been sparked by early signs that hospitalisations are on the rise again, and infections are becoming more common among older people.
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 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
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.
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.’
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
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 refused a test until the capacity is ramped up.
Ministers are also planning to open up two huge lighthouse labs to process test results. Seven are in operation – in Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Newport, Glasgow, Alderley Park in Cheshire, Loughborough in Leicestershire and Antrim in Northern Ireland.The increase in demand has been largely driven by schools going back as children spread coughs and colds. Anxious parents are booking the whole family in for tests to avoid lengthy self-isolation.
The surge in virus cases has sparked worry among the public, and ministers have claimed people are booking tests before going on holiday even though they don’t have any symptoms. At the same time, experts believe testing capacity has been hit by a shortage of equipment and staff, including postgraduate students who have gone back to university.
Last night a leaked memo obtained by The Guardian claimed that the lighthouse labs were stretched to capacity even in late August.How – Page 20
Workers sit around at an almost empty Covid test centre. Covid-19 test centre at Milton Park and ride Cambridge
Six months on… but just as clueless
Analysis by BEN SPENCER
Doctors having to stay off work because they can’t get a test. Pleas for university scientists to help process a huge backlog of swabs.
Sound familiar? Those stories dominated the headlines at the end of March. Incredibly, nearly six months on, they have resurfaced.
So how did it get to this?
The Government spent April and May dealing with their testing failures by building a huge new system that was meant to be able to provide a test to every person who needed one.
First, we were promised 100,000 tests a day, then 250,000, then 400,000. Finally, last week, came Boris Johnson’s ‘moonshot’ announcement – ‘literally millions’ of people would be tested every day ‘in the near future’, he claimed.
It sounded remarkable – a pathway back to normality. But the reality? On most days in the past few weeks the system has struggled to process even 150,000 swabs a day, and is now facing a backlog of at least 185,000.
People with symptoms are regularly told there is no test available – unless they are willing to travel hundreds of miles.
And yesterday Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a new ‘prioritisation’ list, making clear that patients and care home residents would be front of the queue. So why has this vast testing system so dramatically crumbled?
The core reason is that demand has soared – and the network of laboratories that process the tests simply cannot keep up.
Infections are doubling every week – and for each person who tests positive, there are up to 100 more who need a test even if they’re found to be negative. The start of the school term has also meant a spike in seasonal coughs and colds, which has led to even greater demand.
But all of this was foreseeable. Scientists have long warned that the testing system must be fit for purpose by the time the schools return, and even more importantly, in time for a predicted second Covid spike this winter.
Sir John Bell, at the University of Oxford, said ministers had ‘underestimated’ the speed at which cases would surge and the extra demand from children going back to school.
‘They are definitely behind the curve,’ he said.
But instead of accepting they were caught unawares – yet again – ministers have instead blamed the public for ‘frivolously’ seeking tests when they do not have symptoms. Given that ministers and officials spent the summer trying to persuade people to seek tests, this is not only unfair but also misleading.
The Government seems intent on diverting attention away from fundamental problems with its network of seven privately run ‘Lighthouse’ labs, set up in the spring. At the time, scientists questioned why ministers were turning to the private sector, instead of using the expertise in Britain’s university labs.