Coronavirus testing chaos 'puts children at back of queue' 

Parents' groups and businesses warn Government is putting country into 'lockdown by default' as problems grow

Children face being turned away from coronavirus testing centres after Matt Hancock introduced rationing and said the country's testing crisis could take "weeks" to sort out.

The Health Secretary said there would be "prioritisation" of tests for people with acute clinical needs – such as hospital patients – and those in social care, as he acknowledged "operational challenges" in the system.

Until now, the Government has stressed that anyone who needs a test can get one, but Mr Hancock made it clear that, for the first time in months, tests would be rationed "once again".

It came as teachers, parents' groups and businesses warned that the Government was putting the country into "lockdown by default" because children and workers cannot get tests (see graphic below for details of how the UK testing regime breaks down).

With 339 schools partially or completely closed because of proven or suspected coronavirus cases, they said the knock-on effect meant parents could not go to work and offices would start emptying again.

As the testing problems grew, Mr Hancock was accused of quietly slashing the number of available tests by up to 80 per cent in some areas to help clear the current backlog at laboratories.

It also emerged that people living in London were being told to enter an Aberdeen postcode if they wanted a test in the capital.

Bolton NHS Foundation Trust on Tuesday night said a “high volume of patients” had gone to A&E seeking a test. “Patients are requested not to turn up to the hospital,” the Trust tweeted.

Mr Hancock was criticised for claiming that people were having to travel only 5.8 miles on average for tests, only for officials to admit that was an "as the crow flies" figure rather than the actual mileage by road.

The Health Secretary said a new prioritisation list would be published in the coming days, with acute clinical care and social care settings at the top of the list as demand outstrips supply.

It means children, who are least at risk from coronavirus, are likely to be at the back of the queue (watch Michael Gove saying the country needs to "do better" on testing in the video below).

Mr Hancock said: "We have seen a sharp rise in people coming forward for a test, including those who are not eligible.

"As demand has risen, so we are having to prioritise once again – and I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation. They are not always comfortable, but they are important."

He admitted it might be "a matter of weeks" before the testing problems are resolved.

The reopening of schools has meant entire year groups or even whole schools have been sent home because children having symptoms are often unable to get a test to prove whether they have coronavirus or not.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We are getting reports of bubbles of 250 children being sent home. People on the ground are telling me this is not sustainable and they cannot keep their schools open.

"Children are being sent home who cannot get tests, and parents are being forced to take two weeks off to look after them. We will end up in an effective lockdown. There is an escalating sense that we will end up with a return to lockdown by default."

Government figures show that 12 per cent of children were not in school last Thursday.

Emma Knights, the chief executive of the National Governance Association, told The Telegraph: "Governing boards are increasingly concerned about the numbers of pupils and staff awaiting tests and the damage that this might do to parents' confidence in sending children to school."

It emerged that some mobile testing units in England had had their daily capacity slashed from 300 tests to 60 as Mr Hancock tried to clear a backlog at labs. 

He had tried and failed to persuade the Scottish and Welsh Governments to accept a cut in their own capacity.

A Government source said "extensive support" was being provided to the Scottish government and Nicola Sturgeon "is in need of our help to get her house in order".