UK faces backlog of 185,000 Covid-19 tests, leaked documents show

13 September 2020, 19:39 | Updated: 13 September 2020, 21:07

The UK is facing a backlog of almost 200,000 tests
The UK is facing a backlog of almost 200,000 tests. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The UK is facing a backlog of 185,000 Covid-19 tests with some swabs being sent to labs in Germany and Italy, leaked documents have shown.

The government's testing programme has come under increased scrutiny after a rise in demand put the system under greater strain.

However, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has insisted that the NHS Test and Trace system's capacity is at the highest it has ever been.

A spokesperson for the department said there has been a "significant" demand for tests including from people "who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible".

The backlog of nearly 200,000 tests, along with the fact that some swabs are being sent to Europe, was revealed in leaked documents, according to The Sunday Times.

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But capacity will be rapidly expanded in the next few weeks and new technology will be introduced to process tests faster, the DHSC said.

The department also commented on swabs being sent to Italy and Germany, saying the British public expects the DHSC to do everything it can to ensure tests are carried out, including working with a wide range of public and private sector partners.

There has also been an uptick in the number of tests being voided, The Sunday Times reported.

The newspaper said Randox - a global healthcare provider - disposed of 12,401 used swabs in a single day on 2 September, and has voided more than 35,000 used test kits since the start of August.

When contacted by the PA news agency about the accuracy of the figures reported by the Sunday Times, a spokesman for Randox said it does not comment on the number of voided tests or void rates.

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In a statement, Randox said a small minority of samples may be voided for reasons such as leaking or damaged tubes, or have time expired.

"Those being tested are made aware that samples only remain valid for a limited period once collected, and those periods of validity are fully understood across the planning and logistic process.

"Randox have no responsibility for the logistics of sample delivery to laboratories," the statement said.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "Ministers promised us a world-beating test and trace system, but instead they have overseen a complete fiasco.

"People ill or with a sick child desperate for a test will be astonished that tests are piling up left unprocessed, or even thrown away, because of errors in transportation and swabbing, while at the same time we are testing less than capacity.

"This really is ministerial incompetence at a whole new level. It was obvious that with children returning to school and people returning to work more testing capacity would be needed.

"It is also concerning that we are seeing an increased prevalence of the virus in care homes. Failure to protect care homes early on meant many lost their lives. It would be unforgivable if the same mistakes were made again."

Many people who tried to access tests this week were met with an error message telling them to try again, and warning them not to call the helplines.

On Tuesday, NHS Test and Trace's director of testing apologised to people who were unable to get a test.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Thursday that 1.2 million tests are being carried out per week at the moment, adding that there is a capacity for 300,000 per day.

The government no longer publishes daily testing figures, but the latest available data says 175,687 tests were reported on 2 September.

On the same date, the estimated total capacity reported by laboratories was 369,937.

In May, it emerged that around 50,000 coronavirus test samples had to be sent from the UK to the US after "operational issues" in the lab network led to delays in the system.

At the time, the DHSC said sending swabs abroad is one of the contingencies to deal with so-called teething problems in a rapidly-expanded testing system.

In a statement on Sunday, the DHSC said: "NHS Test and Trace is working and our capacity is the highest it has ever been but we are seeing a significant demand for tests including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible.

"New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for those who need them and we are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, and prioritising at-risk groups.

"Our laboratories are processing more than a million tests a week and we recently announced new facilities and technology to process results even faster.

"If you do not have symptoms and are not eligible to get a test you can continue to protect yourself if you wash your hands, wear a face covering and follow social distancing rules."

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