NHS hospitals are cancelling operations and turning away patients amid a deepening crisis over coronavirus testing, health chiefs have warned.
They said shortages of coronavirus tests are now threatening the running of services, with growing staff absences, because so many doctors and nurses are stuck at home, unable to obtain tests for themselves or their families.
On Monday evening council leaders branded the failings "unacceptable" with the country’s 10 worst hotspots running out of tests.
On Monday, the head of the country’s laboratories launched a desperate recruitment drive, calling for students and recently qualified science graduates to sign up for work, as labs struggle to clear a backlog of 185,000 tests.
Until now, health officials have insisted that despite shortages of testing capacity, which have seen some people advised to travel hundreds of miles, they have been able to prioritise those most in need.
But at some points on Monday there were no walk-in, drive-through or home tests available for people across swathes of the North West.
The lack of access to tests in Bolton, Salford, Bradford, Blackburn, Oldham, Preston, Pendle, Rochdale, Tameside or Manchester came amid a growing crisis across the country.
Council chiefs in Bolton on Monday evening urged the Government to treat "major flaws" with the online booking system for coronavirus tests as "a matter of the utmost priority".
Residents in the town, which has the highest infection rate in England, have complained of long delays in trying to book a test, with some offered appointments in other parts of the UK.
The plea was echoed by council leaders in Sefton, Merseyside, and in Bury, Greater Manchester.
It came as the 'rule of six' became law across the country on Monday, with Minister of State for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service Kit Malthouse urging people to report their neighbours for suspected breaches.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the problems obtaining tests stem from a sharp rise in the number of people coming forward for tests who are not eligible, because they do not have symptoms.
Government sources say that worried parents are taking children for tests because a child in their class has symptoms, when only those with symptoms themselves are eligible.
However, many parents said they were seeking tests because the new school term had seen the surge in coughs, cold and respiratory infections which are typical of this time of year, but hard to distinguish from coronavirus.
Official figures show 16,725 children presenting to NHS 111 and 999 with potential corinavirus symptoms in the week after schools reopened – up from 1,711 cases in the week ending August 30.
Since the start of the new year, more than 30 schools across the country have closed, or told at least one year group or cohort to go home, following one cornavirus case, The Telegraph has found.
Of these, 21 have sent one or more year groups home while a further seven have shut down completely following one confirmed case.
NHS chiefs on Monday said that shortages of tests are now so acute that they are threatening the running of hospital services.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said doctors, nurses and other frontline workers were being forced to stay home, causing staff absences, because they could not obtain tests for themselves, or for ill children.
Mr Hopson said senior managers running hospitals in Bristol, Leeds and London had raised concerns about the lack of tests available for NHS staff, or family members, leaving medics forced to self-isolate.
And he said operations and appointments were being cancelled, because patients booked in for surgery were unable to access tests.
"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.
He said NHS trust leaders were “frustrated” by a lack of honesty from the Government throughout the pandemic about operational problems on the ground.
It came as First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon accused Health Secretary Matt Hancock of trying to limit the number of tests that could be carried out in Scotland in order to clear the UK-wide backlog.
She said: "There was a proposal over the weekend that the available slots at mobile testing units and regional testing centres in Scotland would be reduced and the [Scottish] Health Secretary managed to avoid that happening so that we retained full capacity for Scotland."
The Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething, said a similar thing had happened in Wales, where the UK Government told him the number of tests available to Rhondda Cynon Taf, in south Wales, which is at the centre of a coronavirus outbreak, would be reduced to 60.
Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association said labs were struggling with staff shortages, and were now looking for “any help they can get” amid a mounting backlog.
On Monday, Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, vice principal of the University of Glasgow urged students studying science, and those who have recently graduated, to apply for immediate employment to boost testing capacity.
A DHSC spokesman said the letter aimed to find staff for the Government’s 'Moonshot' programme to expand testing capacity, not because of current staff shortages.
Meanwhile, in London on Monday afternoon, the drive-through coronvirus testing centre at Lee Valley Athletics Centre was virtually empty.
Only a handful of cars showed up in the 40 minutes a Telegraph reporter was there, and one of those belonged to a 'walk-in' patient who had to be turned away because they did not have an online booking.
Staff on site said that they used to test between 1,500 and 2000 people a day, but that that number has fallen by between 50 per cent and 75 per cent in the past week because they are now only allowed to accept people who have booked online.
A manager, who asked not to be named, said: “The labs are at breaking point ... where it’s at breaking point they’ve set a national limit ... but they’ve set it nationwide so you could have loads of people going to a test site in Leeds, but then only a few people manage to book here at Lee Valley because they limit them.”
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said new booking and home testing kits were made available on a daily basis for people with symptoms, including in the worst hit areas.
He said tests were running out in hotspots because of hugely increased demand, and that mobile test units had been sent to the hotspots.
The spokesman insisted the "vast majority" of tests are being processed within 24 to 48 hours, and that staff who had been hired on short term contracts were being replaced.
He said:“Our capacity continues to be targeted where it is needed most. 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.”
A spokesperson for the NHS 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."