LBC senior broadcast journalist's battle to get Covid test for son who fell ill

19 September 2020, 07:18

File photo: A view of a quiet coronavirus testing centre in Southend
File photo: A view of a quiet coronavirus testing centre in Southend. Picture: PA

By Holly Harris

LBC senior broadcast journalist Holly Harris was faced with a mammoth mission to access a coronavirus test for her son after he came down with a cough. This is her experience of Britain's testing crisis:

My son, who is 6, had been back at school for just one week before he came down with a cough, one of the three recognised Covid symptoms.

He had no temperature or change in his sense of smell or taste, but the rules at his school dictate he had to stay at home until he could get a coronavirus test and return a negative result.

It also meant myself, my husband and my daughter who’s three, had to stay at home too until we could get him tested.

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First, I tried the most direct route, the route recommended by the government - the booking system on the gov.uk website. It asks you to input your personal details, contact email and number, ethnicity, available transport options and lastly your location.

After no less than 25 attempts, I got nowhere. The message kept coming up that there were no testing sites available. There was also a message not to try calling the helplines. It seems that wasn’t the type of ‘help’ they were designed for.

I tried the same thing, repeatedly inputting the same information, another 3 or 4 times that same day, but to no avail.

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The next day I changed tack. I’d heard that if you input a postcode from an area that’s undersubscribed, you can ‘trick’ the system into giving you a QR code which you can then use at a site local to you. My husband and I spent most of that day coming up with postcodes in far flung areas, but we had no luck.

There was a glimmer of hope on the second night when the gov.uk site said there were 21 places available at a mobile testing site in Kensington, around 5 miles from us. But when we clicked through, they were gone. I imagine hundreds of people were desperately trying to nab them at the same time.

On the third day, we decided it was time for action. We got in the car and drove around to all the testing sites we’d heard of in north London.

But each time we arrived at one, it had gone, packed up like a travelling circus. Marks on the pavements the only sign it was ever there.

After three hours, mostly spent in traffic on the North Circular, we turned up at the last site on our list in Waltham Cross and saw the hallowed sight of a white tent and men and women in high vis vests.

Speaking to the warden at the gate, we were told we wouldn’t need an appointment to get a test, but we would need a QR code, which we hadn’t been able to get. He advised us to try a Scottish postcode so we sat in the car and, at last, struck gold with an address on the Isle of Skye.

Armed with the QR code, my son was allowed in to the big white tent to be swabbed and poked with a big cotton bud. Thankfully around 36 hours later, his result came back negative - surprisingly swift after the debacle of the last few days.

I’m left feeling pretty dismayed with the whole experience. It surely isn’t right that we needed to ‘trick’ the system that we were being forced to adhere to?

And there will be thousands of other people who may not be lucky enough to have a car to randomly drive around in looking for an available test site.

God forbid if my son had actually been feeling seriously ill. Having to watch him suffer while the testing system failed to deliver would have been unbearable.

Luckily for him and for me, it really was just a back-to-school cold. But others might not be so lucky.