The government’s decision to prioritise coronavirus tests in parts of the country with high infection rates has sparked concern that it could lead to new spikes being missed elsewhere.
Areas with fewer cases of COVID-19 have had their testing capacity reduced so that resources can be shifted to areas under so-called “local lockdown”.
As a consequence the government’s test booking service is, according to the BBC, redirecting people living in certain areas where cases are low to facilities located a long way from their homes - in some cases by up to 100 miles.
The concerns come as a new £500m funding package that will support trials of a 20-minute COVID-19 test and efforts to explore the benefits of repeatedly testing people for the virus was announced by health secretary Matt Hancock.
Criticism of ‘rationing’
Hancock admitted there had been “operational challenges” in apparent rationing of tests in parts of the country with low numbers of the virus, but insisted “the vast majority of people” are able to get a test close to them or at home.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the BBC the problem could prevent early capture of localised spikes that could “maybe stop more widespread infection".
Susan Michie, who is a member of the non-government affiliated Independent Sage, tweeted: “Coronavirus testing rationed amid outbreaks – still not enough tests, people being sent 50+ miles away to get a test. Still #TestTraceIsolate system not functioning. Govt strategy been wrong from start.”
Dr Zoe Norris, a GP in Yorkshire, told BBC Breakfast that long journeys would be a "huge undertaking" for those with coronavirus symptoms.
Others tweeted their experience of trying to get a test, including one woman who was directed to a facility that was located 363 miles away from her home.
I was directed 363 miles away, in comparison 100 was reasonable 🤦— Elizabeth Walne (@ElizabethWalne) September 3, 2020
BBC News - Coronavirus testing rationed amid outbreakshttps://t.co/UL0tieci0l
Tried to get a test yesterday in Preston -we are still in lock-down, the nearest drive-thru centre for the next 5 days was Oldham. We had to book to go to Blackburn and walk through their centre so that we could get a result within 24-72 hours! or wait longer with a home test!!— Janet Newsham (@jnewsham) September 3, 2020
Testing system ‘working well’
The health secretary claimed the government’s coronavirus testing system was working “well” despite suggestions that people are being directed to centres more than 100 miles away.
“At the moment the system works well. Of course there are operational challenges from time to time but it works well,” he said.
“And we’re finding a higher and higher proportion of people in the country who have coronavirus and getting them tests so they can be looked after.
“But absolutely, we need to roll out more testing – we have done throughout this crisis and today’s another step in solving some of those problems with the existing technology.”
Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that mass testing was the answer to having to travel for a test, as well as potentially ending some social distancing measures.
He said: “If we can get to the point where regular testing is possible… that allows people more freedom and allows us to lift some of the social distancing measures.
“It's about bringing back confidence. Short of a vaccine this is the best chance we have of reducing social distancing while controlling the virus.”
Saliva test trials
Money will go towards launching a new community-wide repeat population testing trial in Salford, Greater Manchester.
Existing trials in Southampton and Hampshire, using a no-swab saliva test and a rapid 20-minute test, will also be expanded through the new funding announced by the health secretary.
The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said saliva-based testing will be used for the pilot in Salford, which will involve the city council and other local partners.
Its aim is to identify positive coronavirus cases early and rapidly, including for those with no or minor symptoms, so people can self-isolate.
Hancock told the Today programme: “Short of a vaccine, this is the best chance we have of reducing social distancing whilst controlling the virus, especially with winter coming, with all the challenges that brings.”
He would not put a date on when mass testing may be rolled out nationwide, but said having a normal Christmas was dependent on it unless a vaccine was developed.
But one professor believes this change should have been made over the summer when the country was “relatively Covid-secure”.
Professor Alan McNally, from the University of Birmingham, told Today: “I think the time was right to think about scaling up testing to the wider community and asymptomatic testing over the summer when we were relatively Covid-secure, knowing that autumn and winter would come.
“Ideally we would be far more advanced in our ability to handle what we’re already beginning to see, an increase in requirement for Covid testing and respiratory infection testing.”