The shortage of coronavirus testing capacity is increasing staff absence in the NHS which is affecting the health service’s recovery and its preparations for winter, hospital leaders have warned.
The government has always seemed more concerned with managing the political implications of operational problems rather than being open and honest about them” – Chris Hopson, NHS Providers
Hospital trust bosses are saying that key workers are having to self-isolate because Covid-19 tests are unavailable for either them or their family, taking valuable staff away from the frontline.
It follows growing disquiet about the UK’s “world-beating” testing regime as it was revealed yesterday that no coronavirus tests were available for people with symptoms in any of the top ten Covid-19 hotspots in England.
Last week, some people seeking a test were being instructed by the government’s coronavirus website to travel hundreds of miles to get one.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS providers, a membership organisation for NHS trusts, said: “It’s clear that there are current capacity problems with the testing regime. Trust leaders from Bristol, Leeds and London have all raised concerns over the weekend about the lack of testing availability leading to greater levels of staff absence.”
He said NHS trusts are “working in the dark”, unaware of why the shortages are occurring, how long they might last, how widespread they are, and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests.
“They need to know all this information so that they can plan accordingly. For example, trusts need to know if they should try to create or re-establish their own testing facilities as quickly as possible,” he added.
Dr Layla McCay, director at the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, 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. Some trusts are offering priority testing for the local NHS workforce but this is something which could be extended.”
She added: “Our members, and especially in general practice, are concerned that their staff are having to self-isolate unnecessarily due to delays and difficulties in access to tests for themselves and their families – and that some are having to wait longer than expected for the results – which is putting a strain on the services they can provide.”
The British Medical Association has said the government should focus on the current testing system – rather than its enhanced “Operation Moonshot” proposal.
Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul will say in a speech later today: “Down here on planet Earth, we need a fit-for-purpose test and trace system in the here and now with capacity, agility and accessibility that doesn’t require 100-mile journeys that disadvantage some of the most vulnerable.”
Home secretary Priti Patel said it was “unacceptable” that some people were struggling to get tests, and “much more work needs to be undertaken with Public Health England”. She told the BBC that more testing slots and home testing kits were being made available as demand had risen and most people didn’t need to travel more than 10 miles.
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday she was seeking “urgent discussions” with the UK government over delays in people receiving their test results.
Hopson added: “Trust leaders are frustrated that, throughout the pandemic, the government has always seemed more concerned with managing the political implications of operational problems rather than being open and honest about them – shortages of [personal protective equipment] and testing reagents earlier in the pandemic being good examples.
“The government response has often been to rely on a random, impressive sounding, overall statistic – the number of tests performed or PPE items delivered – or to set out a bold future ambition – a world class test and trace service by June, or a moonshot testing regime at some point next year. Both approaches ignore the operational problem at hand. Neither helps the frontline organisations that actually have to deal with the problem.
“The NHS frontline, and the public, need honesty so they can plan and look for their own solutions to the problem in order to provide patients with the care they need.”
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Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said it “beggars belief” that ministers did not use the summer to ramp up testing capacity ahead of schools reopening.