Exclusive

Testing scandal: No coronavirus tests available in top 10 England hotspots

14 September 2020, 17:35 | Updated: 16 September 2020, 07:06

By Ben Kentish

There no coronavirus tests available for people with symptoms in any of the top ten Covid-19 hotspots in England, an LBC investigation has revealed.

LBC tried to request a test in every one of the postcodes on Public Health England’s watchlist where infection rates are highest, including Bolton which has a surging 192 cases per 100,000 people.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had promised a “world-beating” testing operation would be in place by June, but it is now said to be "in chaos".

Read more: NHS staff off work due to lack of testing, bosses claim

Read more: Unemployment rises with more than 695,000 jobs lost since March

But despite LBC mentioning in the Government testing portal that symptoms had developed over the weekend, it returned an error message, saying there were zero tests available in any of the ten local lockdown areas. 

The shortage applied for all three of the tests supposed to be available - home testing kits, drive-through sites and walk-in sites. 

The message on the government testing portal read: “This service is currently very busy. More tests should be available later."

The Health Secretary acknowledged that there were "operational challenges" in the testing system as he was summoned to answer an urgent question on the situation in the Commons.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth questioned him on the findings.

He said: "Yesterday, LBC revealed that there are no tests available in Covid hotspots including Rochdale, Pendle and Bradford.

"Over the weekend in Bolton, a mobile testing centre failed to turn up. In Bury, hundreds queued for five hours for a test. In Walsall, a father with his sick child travelled to an appointment in Wales only to find on arrival that tests had run out.

"When tracing consistently fails to reach 80 per cent on contacts, when 20 per cent of those with symptoms self isolate properly and there is a lack of financial security, infections rise.

"So extra demand was inevitable. So why didn't he use the summer to expand testing and perfect test and trace? Why did he not plan for shortages of staff in lighthouse labs?

"Most importantly, people want to know when they will get a test and when his will be fixed. When will people be able to book a test online again? When will people no longer have to travel hundreds of miles for a test? When will school children and NHS staff be able to access tests and get back to work and school?

"He needs to fix testing now."

Matt Hancock explained that capacity for testing is at an all time high. He also read out figures for testing capacity in the top ten areas in England.

"We processed yesterday over 9,000 tests in the pillar two testing capacity in those top ten local authority areas," he said.

“If you cannot book a test now, or the location or time are not convenient, try again in a few hours. Do not call the helplines – you will not be able to get a test this way.”

The areas where LBC tried to request a test are: Bolton, Salford, Bradford, Blackburn and Darwen, Oldham, Preston, Pendle, Rochdale, Tameside and Manchester.

Oldham MP Jim McMahon wrote on Twitter that he was "staggered" other MPs were saying in the Commons that residents from all over the UK were being offered tests in the Greater Manchester town when local residents were unable to book one in the area.

He said: "Honestly, it is staggering that MPs are lining up in the House of Commons stating that residents from all over the country are being offered tests in Oldham... bar people who actually live in Oldham!

"Urgent action is needed to fix a system, which is now completely broken."

The problem appears to lie with testing labs where, according to leaked government figures, there is already a backlog of 185,000 swabs – meaning even those able to get a test are having to wait days for the result. 

The lack of lab capacity means that some tests being conducted cannot be processed, so tests are showing up as unavailable until labs are free. 

As a result, many are being left in limbo with self-isolation requirements, often having to stay at home for days on end on sick pay while unable to give employers a firm date when they can return to work. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel defended the testing system, claiming that although demand is rising, capacity has also increased.

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari, Ms Patel said: “I’m hearing different stories this morning about challenges around testing.

“Testing has been challenging, that is a fact throughout coronavirus, but let’s be clear, the demand for testing is going up and there is greater capacity for testing, so in the local lockdown areas, we’ve said this many times, mobile testing units are being brought in place, more home testing kits are being issued, and obviously more slots are available on a daily basis for individuals who are symptomatic to go and get a test.

“We’re seeing the increase in the virus right now, and with that of course, testing demand is going up, but also testing capacity is going up as well.”

Commenting on concerns about the availability of tests, a spokesman for Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said: "At a time when Greater Manchester is being hit harder by Covid than any other part of the country, it is not acceptable that people here cannot access a test locally.

"Our local authorities are doing all they can to increase capacity in places like Bolton but we are hamstrung by serious issues with the national booking system and nationally run sites.

"The Government must act immediately to get this sorted and work with us to establish a better long-term solution to this problem.

"We would ask people to try booking an appointment only if you have coronavirus symptoms or you have been asked to get tested."

The Government said it was “working hard” to increase lab capacity, including opening a new lab in Newport and another lab is due to open in Leicestershire in the coming weeks with capacity to process 50,000 tests a day.  

Mr Johnson revealed last week that he had commissioned Operation Moonshot, a plan to carry out up to 10 million tests daily by the spring - costing up to £100bn, more than three quarters of the annual NHS budget. 

The Department for Health denied tests were not available in the area, saying the capacity "continues to be targeted where it is needed most."

A spokesperson added: “Whilst we are seeing significant demand, over a million tests are being processed every week – with around 200,000 every day on average over the last week.

“New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for people with symptoms, and Mobile Testing Units continue to be deployed to areas with local outbreaks.

“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.”

Listen & subscribe: Global Player | Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify