Covid laboratories ‘can not cope’ with the scale of the test requirement sent through to them, the MEN have been told, as the possibility of ordering home kits or booking PCR appointments today was frozen across the UK.
The UK Health Security Agency admitted tonight that during periods of ‘exceptional demand’, testing accessibility was ‘paused’, but urged people to keep trying.
At the time of writing, some parts of England now had slots, but in Greater Manchester the government website said “very few” were available in Greater Manchester.
Sources quoted by MEN in both the health and test-and-tracking system believe the situation is a symptom that laboratories are unable to keep up with demand.
A Lighthouse Lab employee said their facility had ‘operated flat’ around the clock ‘and is already well above capacity’ as more and more people seek testing.
But it can now “not cope with the number of tests arriving,” they said, and their lab now gets 25 times more daily tests to process than earlier in December.
“I suspect the current break in new test availability sites is to allow the backlog to be addressed.”
A senior figure in the Greater Manchester health system said they had also been told that the same reason was behind today’s lack of tests.
They said they had been worried for some time that laboratory capacity would not hold up as the government has urged people to be tested during the Christmas period in light of a highly transferable load.
The number of cases in parts of Greater Manchester is now around 1,800 infections per year. 100,000 people, by far the highest recorded during the pandemic and rapidly rising. Salford has the highest rate outside London and the Southeast, according to tonight’s latest figures.
The laboratory employee said that more than 50 per cent. of the tests treated by their laboratory now return positive compared to 10 per cent. or 20 per cent. former.
Meanwhile, another source in the test-and-trace system said that their test center had been listed as ‘fully booked’ today, when in fact it was empty for half the day – suggesting that its capacity had simply been reduced by the national system to reduce demand.
“It’s very difficult to tell people that you’re fully booked when they’re standing on an empty test site,” they said, adding that some labs are currently refusing to take further tests for treatment.
The parallel lack of lateral flow tests, which are supposed to be used by people without symptoms to check if they have the virus before socialization, probably also increased demand, they said.
“I think people get PCR tests as an alternative.”
It is understood that during Christmas itself, nursing homes struggled to access PCR test kits via the 119 number they have been asked to call by the government. A busy message told them at one point that there would be no more sets available until mid-January, even though the issue is partially resolved.
As the infection rate rises, the numbers also have a contagious effect within the NHS workforce, which is facing growing absenteeism. Staff today were unable to access PCR tests, despite being classified as significant workers.
The rules say they can not get to work if they have been in contact with someone who has the virus until they have a negative test. One doctor warned that the resulting disorder for health and care services could see GPs and nursing homes “going into blockade” due to staff shortages.
Separately, a senior hospital figure agreed that “absence” is their biggest concern, but that they had also noticed a different pattern, with a high number of “random” infections among people in the hospital for another reason.
“We find one patient with Covid in a non-Covid ward and we have to close the whole ward.”
They said their trust mitigating plans were ‘holding for now’.
BUT asked the Department of Health and Social Care to comment on the issue of laboratory capacity but it passed us on to the UK Health Security Agency.
A spokesman for the UK Health Safety Agency said: “The UK’s testing program is the largest in Europe with almost 400 million tests conducted since the start of the pandemic.
“We deliver a record number of lateral flow tests to pharmacies across the country, with almost 8 million test kits being made available to pharmacies between today and New Year’s Eve.
“We have made 100,000 more PCR bookings available a day since mid-December, and we continue to expand capacity rapidly – with over half a million tests performed on December 23 alone and doubling delivery capacity to 900,000 PCR and LFD test set a day.
“If you have not been able to get the test you need from gov.uk, keep checking every few hours as more PCR and LFD tests become available each day.”
It said people who are symptomatic should still visit this link or call 119 to book an appointment or order a home test kit.
But it said that “during periods of unusual demand” there may be “temporary” breaks in ordering or receiving tests.
Winter overflow capacity has already been added to the laboratory network, it added, and capacity will continue to increase.