Test Scandal: LBC listener told to drive 341 miles for Covid swab

4 September 2020, 10:15

By Kate Buck

A caller has told Nick Ferrari how he was made to drive 341 miles for a coronavirus test, amid reports tests have “dried up” in parts of the country.

A "significant" rise in demand for testing has led to people who are potentially suffering from the virus being directed to test centres several hours drive away.

Initial reports had suggested people were being sent as far as 100 miles away for a test, but a caller to LBC said he had been told to travel from Nottingham to Dundee - a journey of 341 miles.

Nick from Nottingham said he thought it was "absurd", and initially thought he'd entered the address for the test centre incorrectly.

He said: "I thought shall I do this? I went on to Google Maps, 341 miles, I thought I think I'll pass that, I'll take some paracetamol. Over the week the symptoms did subside... I like Scotland but 341 miles was a bit too much."

Read more: Caller told to travel 341 miles for a Covid-19 test

Public health experts have expressed fears the lack of testing could lead to developing hotspots being missed.

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari on Friday, Imperial College London's Professor Azeem Majeed said the issue is partly down to the testing centres being created outside of the NHS.

He added: “They’ve been scattered around the country but they’re really not working well with the NHS. So people are having to travel very long distances to get a test because often one centre is very full or not working at maximum capacity.

“There are some positives, compared to March and February we have much more testing capacity than we did back then so we can do more test than we could six months ago.

“But I think we need to make use of the NHS much more and create more local centres across the country so people can get tests at a local clinic or a local hospital so they’re not having to travel hundreds of miles, which will really deter people from getting a test and therefore risk people not being diagnosed and infecting other people.”

When asked about a government drive to raise testing capacity to half a million each day by the end of October, Professor Majeed said he thought this target “was attainable”.

“To give them some credit they’ve gone from a few thousand tests per day in March/April to over 200,000 tests a day capacity now so that is a positive thing," he told Nick.

"But the tests need to be dispersed across the country, we can’t have a few very large centres here and there, we need testing capacity to be evenly distributed.”

Read more: Hancock: Fast Covid tests ‘will help return to work’

Read more: UK weekly coronavirus figures hit highest levels since end of May

Dr Peter English, BMA public health medicine committee chair, said doctors are “incredibly concerned” about the long distances to available test centres.

He said: “This is an issue doctors are incredibly concerned about – with understandably worried patients contacting them for advice about what they can do when told to travel so far.

Some people are having to drive 100 miles or more for a test if they are symptomatic
Some people are having to drive 100 miles or more for a test if they are symptomatic. Picture: PA

“Furthermore, effective testing relies on widespread take-up among the public, and being directed so far from home will be a huge disincentive to people who need to get tested.

“We understand there is limited testing capacity, but the logic of moving so much of it away from areas with low infection rates is flawed – as it means the programme is less likely to identify new spikes early, allowing swift action to be taken.”

Prof Paul Hunter, a public health expert at the University of East Anglia, said the distances could act as a "big disincentive to being tested.”

Jan from Shepperton told LBC’s Eddie Mair that her son, who lives near Sunbury-on-Thames had symptoms, spent 12 hours attempting to book a test.

Locations suggested to him included Bexhill-on-Sea – 85 miles away – and Newport, Gwent – 125 miles away.

He was eventually given a slot at Heathrow.

Kate, from Tower Hamlets, was told to drive almost 50 miles to a test centre in Bedfordshire to get her four-year-old son tested after he started showing symptoms of the virus.

She tried repeatedly to book a test before she managed to order a home-testing kit, which took two days to arrive, but she has still not received the results almost a week on.

She has been forced to take time off her job as an NHS healthcare professional to care for her son while she waits for her son’s test result.

One person said they were told to travel from Suffolk to Blackburn for a test – over 200 miles - while people in London have been told to travel to the Isle of Wight, which involves a ferry journey.

A senior source said a change would go live on Thursday or Friday restricting test centre locations to within 75 miles, and it is understood there are plans to improve the algorithm so that it suggests more suitable locations for people requesting tests.

Gateshead MP Ian Mearns said some of his constituents were being told to drive 50 miles to access testing, and said testing capacity had “completely evaporated” in the north east.

He told LBC: “I was talking to my Director of Public Health only this morning, and it seems as though the accessibility we have to test kits has just dried up.

“Our testing capacity is reduced to such an extent that what should be testing all day, every day, is now starting at 8am and by 10am the test kits are gone.”

Baroness Dido Harding, interim chairwoman of the new National Institute for Health Protection, which incorporates NHS Test and Trace, blamed the problem on rising demand.

She said: "Fundamentally, it is because the demand for testing has grown so fast and so much.

"We've seen an increase in 63% more people coming forward to be tested for the first time than June and in many ways that's a good thing.

"Now obviously I don't want people to be being directed to go miles and miles for a test but the reason that that is happening at the moment is because of a really significant increase in demand off a testing platform that, as I've said, is larger than any other in Europe."

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Baroness Harding said laboratory capacity was being expanded "as fast as physically possible" to meet demand, with an ambition of reaching 500,000 tests per day by the end of next month.

"We're expanding existing testing capacity, we announced this morning a new lab that will be opening near Loughborough, which by the end of September will be up and running, and at full capacity will be able to do another 50,000 tests a day.

"And... we're trialling new testing technology that will also expand capacity. So actually we're at the forefront in the world in scaling and making testing more accessible to people."

Justin Madders, shadow health minister, described the latest figures as "hugely disappointing" and said there was "clearly a problem with testing infrastructure".

Mr Madders said: "With cases on the increase and the Government pushing for everyone to return to work, it is more important than ever that test and trace is working to its potential.

"It is therefore hugely disappointing to see that the number of people the system reached went down again in the last week.

"There is also clearly a problem with testing infrastructure as people across the country are sent hundreds of miles for testing appointments."

It comes as the number of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 being reached through Test and Trace is at its lowest since the system was launched, figures show.

New figures from the Department of Health and Social Care show that 69.4% of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England were reached through the Test and Trace system in the week ending August 26.

This is down from 77.1% in the previous week, and the lowest weekly percentage since Test and Trace was launched in May.

For cases handled by local health protection teams, 97.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to August 26.

By contrast, for those cases handled either online or by call centres, 59.8% of close contacts have been reached and asked to self-isolate.

Since the launch of Test and Trace, 270,559 close contacts of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 have now been reached through the tracing system and asked to self-isolate.

This is 79.7% out of a total of 339,635 people identified as close contacts.

The remaining 69,076 people (20.3%) were identified as close contacts, but were not reached.

The latest data also indicates that a total of 6,732 new people tested positive for Covid-19 in England in the week to August 26, an increase of 6% in positive cases on the previous week and the highest weekly number since the week to June 3.

The Government said that as of 9am on Thursday there had been a further 1,735 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus - the highest daily total since June 4.

It added that a further 13 people had died in the UK within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday, but a new overall total was yet to be confirmed.

The overall total on Wednesday was 41,514 but separate figures published by the UK's statistics agencies show there have now been 57,300 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

The Health Secretary has announced a new £500 million funding package aimed at supporting trials of a 20-minute Covid-19 test and efforts to explore the benefits of repeatedly testing people for the virus.

Money will go towards launching a new community-wide repeat population testing trial in Salford, Greater Manchester.

Existing trials in Southampton and Hampshire, using a no-swab saliva test and a rapid 20-minute test, will also be expanded through the new funding.

Mr Hancock would not put a date on when mass testing may be rolled out nationwide, but said having a normal Christmas was dependent on it unless a vaccine was developed.