Government testing laboratories across the UK are facing a backlog of nearly 200,000 Covid-19 tests and are having to send some samples abroad to help reduce the stress on the system, amid growing concern about the lack of a robust test and trace system.
There was a backlog of 185,000 tests on Friday, according to Department of Health and Social Care documents leaked to The Sunday Times, with some tests being sent to Italy and Germany for processing.
“The technology is there, the testing is there, they’re just not using it,” said Kelly Klifa, co-founder of Testing For All, a not-for-profit company making affordable Covid-19 tests. “Testing centres do have tests, so the bottleneck is the laboratories themselves — tests are being routed to the wrong locations.”
Early in the pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised he would deliver a “world-beating” testing strategy, but this arm of the government’s coronavirus response has proved to be one of the most controversial.
Widespread testing was stopped early in the outbreak, in part because of a lack of capacity in publicly run laboratories. After health secretary Matt Hancock set a target of 100,000 tests a day to be carried out by the end of April, the government opened a network of so-called “lighthouse laboratories” to expand processing.
But these laboratories have been mired in setbacks and in recent weeks have found themselves unable to meet growing demand from members of the public, who are increasingly anxious to be tested as they are encouraged to return to work and school.
The leaked government document shows that several labs across the UK are processing far fewer tests than their stated capacity. It also indicated that there was a significant problem with tests being “voided”, with 4.3 per cent of tests facing this fate, mostly due to “leaked samples”.
“It is estimated that 109 people who were given void results could have been positive,” the document states.
The document also showed that three-quarters of test results were not being provided within 24 hours — the government’s stated target — and a quarter were not being processed within 48 hours.
The government has previously claimed that testing capacity in the country is 375,000 tests a day, though the number of tests currently being carried out is closer to 230,000 a day.
Earlier this week, Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, questioned the government’s competence in handling mass testing.
“The prime minister needs to know how anxious hundreds of families are — in the last week, they’ve been sent all over the country and told there are no tests,” he said. “It can’t be brushed off. This is basic stuff . . . the prime minister needs to take responsibility.
“We need a functioning testing regime but far from the world-beating system we were promised, the government can’t even get the basics right.”
He also alluded to mixed messaging from government and testing officials over who was at fault for the backlog — laboratory shortages or the public for not sticking to guidance around when to order tests.
The government last week announced an ambitious “moonshot” plan to carry out Covid-19 tests on millions of people a day by early next year.
Under the plan, huge swaths of the population could be regularly checked, either using new swab tests that deliver results in 20 minutes, and do not have to be sent to a laboratory, or self-administered saliva tests.
The Department of Health and Social Care 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.”