Amid coronavirus testing shambles people cry, 'What's the plan?'

Hundreds forced to visit GPs and A&E units in the scramble to find swab tests for coronavirus infection

An almost-empty test centre in Guildford on Wednesday
An almost-empty test centre in Guildford on Wednesday Credit: CHRIS GORMAN

When Boris Johnson promised the British public a "world-beating" test-and-trace system, very few envisaged it would mean having to scramble to an Accident and Emergency ward in a desperate bid to find a coronavirus swab.

In a sign that the NHS's testing farce is far from solved, hundreds of "poorly people" in Bolton - an area with one of the highest infection rates in the country - were left no choice but to visit their local A&E and GP surgeries to try to get a test for the virus after it proved impossible to book an appointment on the national system.

Doctors on Wednesday night criticised the "failure" of the Government's testing programme which has faced a backlog in recent weeks due to a bottleneck in laboratories processing samples.

Prof Donna Hall, the chairman of Bolton NHS Trust, said doctors are "on their knees with the amount of people who want tests".

Managers at the Royal Bolton Hospital on Wednesday urged people to stay away from its A&E unit unless strictly necessary after more than 100 turned up to try to get a test.

"Very busy emergency department today as poorly people unable to get a test come to us for help. This is why it's so important to have a functioning testing and tracing system - one day of delays can cause hundreds more infections. This is a very worrying situation for us in Bolton," Prof Hall said.

NHS Providers, which represents NHS trust leaders, expressed concerns that shortages in online booking slots were leading to an increase in people attending A&E.

Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive, said hospitals in Alder Hey and Plymouth were also forced to publicly announce that tests were unavailable in their emergency departments.

Read more: Covid-19 testing: what has gone wrong?

On Wednesday, tests were not available for people with coronavirus symptoms in some of England's worst affected areas. Out of the 10 local authorities with the highest Covid-19 infection rates, only one was offering slots.

As the testing system struggled to cope with soaring demand, those trying to book an appointment in Hyndburn, which has the seventh highest rate, were being offered a walk-through nearly 20 miles away in Bolton, according to the Government website.

As of midday, tests were not available in the local authority of Oadby and Wigston, in Leicestershire, which has the second highest rate in England. Parents criticised the impact the testing crisis is having on schools, with hundreds of children being sent home only days after returning to the classroom. In several cases, a whole year group of 200 students were ordered to leave school and self-isolate for 14 days after just one child tested positive.

People queue at a coronavirus test centre in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, on Wednesday Credit: REUTERS

One parent described the heavy handed approach as "a sinister game of musical chairs", adding: "It's a matter of when our 15-year-old son, and his 200 child bubble, is sent home and he's in his GCSE year. Could the Government please start figuring out how the exams due in seven months will be approached. What is the plan?!"

However, despite people struggling to get an appointment, pictures posted online show empty testing centres across the country at Heathrow Airport, North Greenwich, Leeds and Cambridge.

Blackburn councillor Jim Smith criticised the city's empty centres despite the huge demand. "It just seems like madness having test centres set up ready to go which aren't taking anybody because the system isn't working," he said.

Multiple other parents of GCSE students expressed concern at the impending academic year. "It is a shambles," parents Jon DaSilva and Jo de Brito told the The Telegraph.

The couple were given "a mere few hours' notice" late on Monday that their 16-year-old daughter, Amelie Brito, could no longer attend school and must self-isolate for 14 days because one student tested positive.

Amelie, who is in her final GCSE year at Buxton Community School, Derbyshire, is supposed to be sitting her mock exams in December.

Staff wait for visitors at a test site in Southwark, south London Credit: PA

The couple said: "We have been told she can't be tested because she doesn't have symptoms but what should be happening is that every child in a bubble that is sent home should be tested and sent back to class if the results are negative.

"She is in her final year of her GCSEs and she has already missed months of learning. She is supposed to have her mocks in December, which could end up predicting her final grades next summer if her academic year can't sit exams like the last year. It is deeply worrying."

On Wednesday Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, admitted it would take weeks to address the growing backlog in test provision.