A LACK of coronavirus tests for NHS staff is putting services at risk – as none are available in the 10 worst-hit areas, health bosses have warned.
Frontline medics are having to self-isolate rather than work as they can’t get tests for themselves or family members, according to NHS Providers.
Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest news & updates
A man walks past a coronavirus road sign in Bolton, Greater Manchester[/caption]
It comes amid reports that people have been unable to get tests in England’s Covid hotspots, including Bolton, Salford, Bradford and Manchester.
Labs are understood to be struggling to process all the samples being sent to them, forcing test centres to cut back on appointments.
And it means hundreds of people with coronavirus symptoms are waiting more than five days for a result.
But Home Secretary Priti Patel has today defended the system – saying capacity was increasing.
She told BBC Breakfast, she said it was “unacceptable” that some people were struggling to get tests, and “much more work needs to be undertaken with Public Health England”.
More testing slots and home testing kits were being made available and the “majority of tests” were available within a 10-mile radius, she said.
She also told Sky News that NHS staff would be prioritised for coronavirus testing after hospitals in Bristol, Leeds and London had raised concerns over the weekend about the lack of tests available.
Home Secretary Priti Patel arrives at Downing Street this morning[/caption]
Ms Patel said: “People within the health and care sector are getting access to testing and they have been prioritised.
“It’s important to make sure the capacity is there and the access to testing – and if that’s something that needs to be picked up at a local level with Public Health England then that should be done.
“They are on the frontline – they should have no issue in terms of accessing tests.”
‘NHS AT RISK’
Yet hospital bosses have warned that a lack of testing is putting NHS services at risk, while preparations for the winter pressures of Covid-19 and seasonal flu were being hampered.
Saffron Cordery, NHS Providers deputy chief executive, told the BBC: “It means that trusts up and down the country are unable to start the restoration of services that we so desperately need to see after Covid.
“And also, critically, they are now preparing for winter and if they have staff unable to come and work on the front line because they haven’t had tests that’s going to make it incredibly difficult for them.”
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said there was a lack of detailed operational information on the shortages, such as how long they will last.
He said: “It’s clear that there are current capacity problems with the testing regime.
“Trust leaders from Bristol, Leeds and London have all raised concerns over the weekend about the lack of testing availability leading to greater levels of staff absence.
The problem is that NHS trusts are working in the dark – they don’t know why these shortages are occurring
Chris HopsonNHS Providers chief executive
“It’s not just access for tests for staff members themselves, it’s also access for their family members as NHS workers have to self-isolate if their family members are unable to confirm if they have Covid-19 or not.
“The problem is that NHS trusts are working in the dark – they don’t know why these shortages are occurring, how long they are likely to last, how geographically widespread they are likely to be and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests.
“They need to know all this information so that they can plan accordingly.
“For example, trusts need to know if they should try to create or re-establish their own testing facilities as quickly as possible.”
Mr Hopson said NHS trusts were also concerned about the impact of testing shortages on patients who need to be tested before being admitted for hospital treatment.
“We’re aware of a small number of examples of patients being unable to get such tests, which cuts across trusts’ ability to restore services in the way they have been asked to do,” he said.
“We are concerned, for example, that patients waiting for hospital treatment can no longer highlight this fact when applying online to access a test.
“We need to prioritise tests for healthcare workers and their families and patients coming in for treatment, many of whom have already waited longer than normal.
“Our recent survey showed how concerned trust leaders were about the impact of inadequate testing on their ability to restore services and it’s disappointing that no detailed information on the current problems has been shared.”
He urged the Government “to be honest and open” about what was going on.
We need to prioritise tests for healthcare workers and their families and patients coming in for treatment
Chris HopsonNHS Providers chief executive
“The Government response has often been to rely on a random, impressive sounding, overall statistic – the number of tests performed or PPE (personal protective equipment) items delivered – or to set out a bold future ambition – a world class test and trace service by June, or a moonshot testing regime at some point next year,” he said.
“Both approaches ignore the operational problem at hand. Neither helps the frontline organisations that actually have to deal with the problem.”
Professor Alan McNally, director of the institute of microbiology and infection at the University of Birmingham, who helped set up the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab, told BBC Breakfast there were “clearly underlying issues which nobody wants to tell us about”, plus a surge in demand for tests.
“I think there is a surge in demand (and) I think our stated capacity is very different from actually how many tests can be run in a given day,” he said.
“It’s very worrying that we seem to be in a situation before really we’ve come into autumn and winter where we’ve maxed out the number of tests we can do in the country, and that is very concerning.”
But he said a surge in demand for tests “was always going to happen at this time of year”.
He added: “Anyone with a child will tell you that respiratory infections peak as schools go back in September.
“The worry is that we are not getting clear information on where the problems are and it seems that there’s been a lack of foresight and planning for this to occur.”
The British Medical Association’s council chairman said that despite the Government’s ambitious Operation Moonshot plan for millions of UK tests to be carried out daily, the focus must be on the testing system currently in place.
In a speech to the doctors’ union’s annual meeting on Tuesday, Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “The Government is now shooting for the moon promising to deliver mass continuous testing with a test that doesn’t yet exist at a cost nearly as much as the total NHS budget.
“Down here on Planet Earth, we need a fit for purpose test and trace system in the here and now with capacity, agility and accessibility that doesn’t require 100-mile journeys that disadvantage some of the most vulnerable.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted last week that there had been “challenges in access to tests” but insisted that “the vast majority of people get their tests rapidly and close to home”.
Residents in Bolton, where the infection rate is the highest in England, have complained of long delays in trying to book a test and in some cases being offered appointments in other areas of the UK.
Council chiefs have urged the Government to treat “major flaws” with the online booking system for tests as “a matter of the utmost priority”.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has said testing capacity has been targeted at the hardest-hit areas following a rise in demand.
An NHS spokeswoman said: “Hospitals continue to fully comply with recommended patient and staff testing protocols. To further support the national Test and Trace programme, NHS hospital labs have now been asked to further expand their successful, fast turnaround and highly accurate, testing capacity.”