Test and Trace chief says demand for coronavirus tests is 'significantly outstripping UK capacity'

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Demand for coronavirus tests is “significantly” outstripping the UK’s capacity to carry out swabs, the NHS Test and Trace chief has warned. Baroness Dido Harding suggested around a quarter of those coming forward for a test did not have symptoms and the latest capacity for diagnostic tests was 242,817. She told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that the number of people calling 119 and visiting the website to try to book tests was “three to four times the number of tests that we currently have available”.

However, she said that would involve some double-counting with people using different phone numbers. But she said the number of symptomatic people – the only people who should be eligible for diagnostic tests – was “significantly lower” than the number trying to get a swab. Testing capacity has been based on modelling by the Sage scientific advisory group, Lady Harding said, and she said a “sizeable increase in testing capacity” had been planned in anticipation of the return of schools.

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But she told MPs: “As the Prime Minister said yesterday, plainly we don’t have enough testing capacity today and we are doing everything in our power to increase the testing capacity.”

Science and Technology Committee chairman Greg Clark told her: “It is dispiriting to find that we are now in September, in circumstances which are entirely predictable – people are going back to school, people are going back to work – and we haven’t had the right capacity put in place during the quieter times of June, July and August.” Lady Harding said the Government has been drawing up a list of who will be at the front of the queue for the available tests.

An employee working with NHS test and trace in north London (AFP via Getty Images)

She said hospital patients were the top priority, followed by social care and NHS staff, with the three categories accounting for around 50 per cent of tests. Following that, testing was targeted at outbreak areas.

Among the “broad general public”, Lady Harding said: “We are looking to prioritise, within that, key workers, particularly teachers.”

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She also explained that the “constraint” in the testing system was in processing and laboratories. “We have to restrict the number of people who are taking tests in the testing sites so that there’s no risk of those tests going out of date when they are processed in the labs,” Lady Harding told MPs. “So I do understand how frustrating it feels that when you arrive in the testing site and it doesn’t look like it’s very busy and you can see it could do more, but the capacity constraint isn’t in those testing sites, it’s back in the lab.

“And it would be very dangerous to send too many samples back to the laboratory, have them not be processed and people not know what their results were.” It comes as a patient who was turned away from a testing centre in London described a state of “absolute pandemonium”. Henry Bull, 29, said he cycled around five miles from his home in Peckham to his nearest testing site in Lewisham after booking an appointment online because he had a cough.

“I biked down there for about 10, 15 minutes before my appointment time and there was just absolute pandemonium, chaos,” he said. “The entire junction is gridlocked with cars queuing to get into it, loads of car drivers getting out and shouting at each other to move out of the way. Meanwhile, once you actually get to the site, nobody has received the QR code that you have to have to get tested.

“Lots of very angry people, lots of exasperated people shouting at each other and shouting at the staff who are doing their best, but they don’t really know what’s happening either.

Schools may go part-time faced with testing problems

“A pretty horrible, stressful situation all round to be honest, lots of very upset people, presumably several of whom have Covid as well so exposing a lot of us to infection.” Elsewhere, HGV mechanic Brad Cockburn made a 100-mile round trip from Bedale, North Yorkshire, to the Doxford Park testing site in Sunderland only to find there were no staff, not even a tent or other infrastructure, at the site on the out-of-town business park. Mr Cockburn said: “I took this afternoon off, unpaid, and I won’t be able to work tomorrow now.

“They’re supposed to put these things in place to get people working again. Now they’ve got all these people congregating here and nobody to test them.” Meanwhile, the Government said a further 3,396 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 381,614.

As of 9am on Thursday, a further 21 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.

This brings the UK total to 41,705.

But separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show there have now been 57,500 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

More about: | Coronavirus | Dido Harding | Baroness Harding

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