As the U.K.’s coronavirus testing system struggles, the health secretary blames too many ‘inappropriate’ tests
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The U.K.’s coronavirus-testing system is overloaded, and the government’s health chief has identified the culprits: people who get tests despite having no COVID-19 symptoms.
“In the last couple of weeks we have seen an increase in demand including…from people who are not eligible for tests, people who don’t have symptoms,” Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said in a Wednesday interview with Sky News. “About 25% of people who are coming forward don’t have symptoms, and aren’t eligible.”
These, apparently, are the people responsible for a situation in which others are being asked to travel hundreds of miles to get tests, and many of those trying to apply online—symptomatic or not—get an error message.
A leading figure in the U.K.’s testing regime has also indicated that the problem is not a crunch in testing-center capacity, but rather in the country’s capacity for processing samples.
Hancock cited examples of “inappropriate” testing, such as a school sending an entire year-group for tests, and people getting tests ahead of vacations. Health officials around the world have another name for it: “assurance-testing,” and they think it’s one of our best tools to fight the spread of the virus in the absence of a vaccine.
In the U.K., it has been the case since mid-May that anybody experiencing COVID-19 symptoms—a new and persistent cough, high temperature, loss of smell or taste—has been able to get a test to confirm whether they have the virus or not. In processing as many as 200,000 tests per day, the U.K.’s testing rates compare well with those of neighbors such as Germany, where a little over 1 million tests are being conducted each week.
The tests are central to the National Health Service’s (NHS) Test and Trace program, which aims to locate and isolate those who came into contact with carriers.
But it has long been known that many carriers of the novel coronavirus display no symptoms, yet remain contagious. In June, Hancock himself presented figures from the Office for National Statistics that showed, in his words, “that around 70%–80% of people who test positive don’t have symptoms.”
“That is quite a significant finding and one of the important things about this disease,” he said at the time.
Also in June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Dido Harding, the head of the Test and Trace program, complained that not enough symptomatic people were booking coronavirus tests. “We have excess testing capacity, and we have excess tracing capacity,” Harding said then, while Johnson also said there was “plenty of capacity.”
That situation now appears to have changed. The British press has recently been full of stories about symptomatic people who tried to book tests with the NHS but were told to visit entirely different parts of the country to get them—one as far as 600 miles away.
Meanwhile, those who try to book a test online are currently greeted with the following message: “There are no tests available right now. We are experiencing very high demand for testing at the moment. Please try again tomorrow.”
“Verge of collapse”
Hancock said Wednesday that the government had “already put in certain solutions” to make sure no one has to travel more than 75 miles for a test. He said capacity was continually increasing but there is “a problem with a couple of contracts” that is holding up further expansion. The secretary of state said this would take a couple of weeks to resolve.
Sarah-Jane Marsh, a deputy to Harding, explained Tuesday that the problem was not one of capacity at testing sites, but rather “it’s our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch-point. We are doing all we can to expand quickly.”
Keir Starmer, the head of the opposition Labour Party, said Tuesday that the Test and Trace system was “on the verge of collapse.”
“[We’re seeing] heartbreaking stories from people who need a test being told no tests are available, or the website is crashing, or people are being told to go miles and miles for a test. Nobody can argue that that is good governance,” Starmer said.
Like several other European countries, the U.K. has seen its coronavirus infection numbers shoot up in the past couple of weeks. It is now back to thousands of new cases being added to the statistics each day, and that’s without the testing of asymptomatic people.
On Tuesday, Hancock’s health department issued its latest localized coronavirus restrictions, this time affecting the town of Bolton, near Manchester in the North of England. Restaurants in Bolton are now able to serve only takeout, and no one is allowed to socialize with people outside their household, even if they are outdoors.
From Monday, all social gatherings of more than six people will become illegal across England, not including gatherings at workplaces, schools, weddings, funerals, and organized team sports. Hancock said the new rule will be “rigorously enforced by police,” who currently have no powers to intervene when up to 30 people gather.
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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com