UK's vital PCR test capacity less than it was a year ago - as Omicron rapidly spreads

15 December 2021, 19:03 | Updated: 15 December 2021, 20:48

The UK's testing capacity is lower than last year despite Omicron's fast spread
The UK's testing capacity is lower than last year despite Omicron's fast spread. Picture: Alamy

By Ben Kentish

The UK has less capacity for carrying out vital PCR tests - as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly across the country - than it did almost a year ago, analysis by LBC has found.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

PCR testing capacity so far this month averages 790,700 a day – lower than in January, and much lower than in October, when it averaged 866,500.

The figures suggest the UK testing system is woefully unprepared for a huge spike in Omicron cases, which government scientists have warned could see as many as onr million Omicron infections a day in the coming days.

The finding will also raise questions over why more was not done during the last year to increase capacity ahead of this winter.

Ministers opened a new testing "mega lab" in Leamington Spa in July but halted development on another in Scotland that was due to increase PCR testing capacity by 300,000 a day – more than a third of the current capacity.

Read more: Omicron fightback: PM hails 'Britain's jab heroes' and issues plea for volunteers

Read more: Chris Whitty warns Covid records will continue to be broken as Omicron rages across UK

In the last week, the average number of PCR tests conducted each day was 499,400 – meaning the system is currently operating at around 60% of capacity.

However, with Omicron infections doubling every two days, the current spare capacity of around 310,000 tests a day looks set to be rapidly swallowed up.

Ben Kentish reports on test shortages across England

Even if Omicron infections peak at a much lower level than feared – say, at 500,000 cases a day – the demand for PCR tests would still be exceeded several times over.

This is because most PCR tests are used on people who do not have Covid. Currently, only 1 in 10 PCR tests comes back positive.

That means PCR tests are needed not just for the millions who are likely to catch Omicron – but also for the many millions more who may have symptoms that require a PCR test but who do not, in fact, have Covid.

Even at the height of the Covid wave last January, PCR test positivity in England only topped 18% - meaning that for every person taking a PCR test, more than four in five tested negative.

Even if the positivity rate exceeds those heights in the coming days, a rate of 500,000 infections a day would mean there would be demand for several million PCR tests a day. Current daily capacity is around 800,000.

The finding will raise questions over whether the government has used the last year, particularly the summer, to sufficiently prepare for the expected wave of Covid cases this winter, even before the emergence of Omicron.

PCR testing capacity dropped significantly through the spring and summer before gradually increasing again to a peak of over 880,000 a day in October.

It then dipped again and has been steadily increasing since the end of November, but is still below where it was 11 months ago.

Asked for comment, the Department for Health and Social Care directed LBC to the UK Health Security Agency, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.