The UK coronavirus testing system is struggling to cope with demand, meaning some people with symptoms are being asked to drive more than 100 miles for a swab test.
Government sources said labs were “maxed out” after a rise in people asking for tests in recent weeks.
The problem means some people are being asked to travel long distances to get a test.
The government said testing was being prioritised for high risk areas, including care homes.
But public health experts have warned the issue could lead to new spikes being missed.
‘I was told to travel 250 miles for a test’
When David Llewellyn tried to book a test on Sunday he was directed to a test centre near Blackburn – 250 miles from his home in Stowmarket, Suffolk.
“I thought I’d entered my home location incorrectly so went through the booking process again, only to get the same location for testing.
“Needless to say I have subsequently ordered a home testing kit, which despite three automated email reminders to take the test has yet to arrive. I’d do the test if I had it.
“I think it’s ridiculous. The idea that the test centres near me in rural Suffolk are at capacity is unlikely and whilst I accept that Covid is unpredictable and the science is changing all the time, I don’t think the government have got their act together.
“The fact I’ve been directed 250 miles away in order to get a test shows they haven’t got it right yet.”
What is happening?
In recent days, people using the postcode search of the coronavirus test booking service have been offered a test at centres far away from where they lived.
- People with symptoms living in London are being directed between 50 and 135 miles away, including to testing sites in Cardiff and the Isle of Wight
- A postcode in Devon was directed to a testing centre 109 miles away in Carmarthen
- One in Worthing was directed 40 miles away
- One in Cumbria was sent 50 miles away to Dumfries
- In Sheffield on Wednesday morning, the closest available testing centre was 20 miles away
These distances are the ones that are given on the government website, but they appear to have been calculated as the crow flies, rather than being a true reflection of how long it would take to drive – for example, the Devon to Carmarthen route was actually a 206-mile drive according to Google Maps.
There is also the option of ordering a home test kit to be posted out, but there have been many occasions where this option has not been available to people.
Prof Paul Hunter, a public health expert at the University of East Anglia, said these issues could act as “big disincentive to being tested” and result in missing local increases “early enough to maybe stop more widespread infection”.
What has caused this problem?
The government says the network of labs used to process tests has capacity to process 250,000 tests a day at the moment.
Currently around 175,000 tests a day are being processed.
But the government said it has faced problems because demand is not smooth – at weekends it drops and on weekdays there can be surges.
Over the past month it has meant a backlog has developed, meaning the time taken to turnaround tests has been increasing.
To curb demand, the availability of slots at testing centres have been reduced.
The government said it has done this to ensure high risk areas, including care homes and towns with high rates of infections, can be prioritised for testing.
The most recent data shows test results are now being provided more quickly with the average turnaround time 24 hours or less for mobile testing units and local testing centres.
The government said that by Friday no-one should be asked to travel more than 75 miles to get a test.
It also said booking slots open up throughout the day so if people keep trying they should be able to get a more convenient location for a test, or order a home test.
A new lab is also being opened near Loughborough at the end of the month that will be able to process 50,000 tests a day.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted there were some “operational challenges”, but said the “vast majority” of people could get a test close to home.
How will new tests speed things up?
Mr Hancock also set out plans to pilot more rapid, easy-to-use tests.
A £500 million programme is under way to trial a range of different tests, including ones that use saliva (instead of nose and throat swabs) and tests that can be processed quickly, and sometimes on the spot – at the moment swab tests are sent off to labs to be processed.
Repeat testing of members of the public will be tried out in Salford in Greater Manchester.
Meanwhile, students and school pupils in Southampton will also be tested weekly in another study.
The technologies open up the prospect of mass population testing which, if successful, could reduce the need for social distancing.
Mr Hancock said: “Short of a vaccine, this is the best chance we have of reducing social distancing whilst controlling the virus, especially with winter coming and all the challenges that brings.”
But he refused to be drawn on a timescale for when this might become available, saying it was essential to see if they worked first.