The crisis in the UK COVID testing service could be about to trigger major medical and staffing shortages, a doctors’ group has warned.
The government has paved the way for restricting access to testing and giving priority to health staff, returning to the procedures used at the outset of the pandemic, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded the service was failing. One proposal, which has alarmed GP leaders, is to direct requests for tests to practices. The Royal College of GPs said practices would be “overload.”
The Doctors’ Association found hundreds of doctors who have been unable to get tests. In a snapshot survey of 750 doctors, 77% said they had been unable to get tests. It said many of its respondents had to take time off work to self-isolate. One GP in Gloucester was off work for six days before getting a test in Norwich.
According to reports in national and local media, the service is being overwhelmed by viruses spreading in newly returned schools. Its allocation system has collapsed with applicants for tests being referred to centres hundreds of miles from home. Local reports also suggest that many centres have been largely idle and people who find them can simply walk in and get a test. The government says that fewer than 5% have had to travel more than 50 miles for tests. The UK reported 3,991 new cases yesterday and 20 deaths from the virus.
One doctor said: “Monday it took six hours of constant completing the form and then trying again. Eventually a test site appeared but that level of effort would certainly put people off especially as I was trying to look after a poorly child at the time. It kept saying no test available and to call 119. Called 119 and it would hang up on you and say use the website.”
Another doctor said: “The only option was an appointment in 90 minutes. It is a 419 mile journey to get there and takes 7 hours according to Google maps.” Another GP said: “I haven’t needed one myself but I have been trying to assist staff without success. We are very quickly going to have a serious problem on our hands.”
Doctors’ Association president Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden said: “It is a disgrace that NHS staff and patients are being forced to drive hundreds of miles to access a test whilst unwell if one is available to them at all. For frontline NHS staff preparing for a second wave this feels like Groundhog Day. The same problems we were having accessing testing in March appear to be repeating themselves. It seems that we are heading into a second peak having not learned lessons from the first.”
GP Dr Vinesh Pate said: “Natural winter demands, increasing numbers of Coronavirus cases, the critical need to restart normal services and reduced staff numbers will lead to the collapse of Primary Care when it is again most needed. The inevitable consequence is reduced GP appointments; forcing many patients to attend A & E inappropriately or worse not seek help when required. The negative impact of this perfect storm of pressure on the mental health of frontline staff should also not be underestimated.”
Dr Layla McCay, from the NHS Confederation, a long-term critic of Test and Trace, said: “We welcome the Health Secretary’s suggestion that tests should be given to those who need them most and suggest that first in the queue should be NHS and care home staff as well as their dependents. On his point that it would take a “matter of weeks” to resolve the problems, 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. The problem is that the Government once again risks over-promising and under-delivering which in turn undermines public confidence at the point when it is so desperately needed.”