When Martin Lane needed a coronavirus test for his five year-old son, he spent two days trying to book one without success. The alternative to getting tested was for the whole family to isolate at home for two weeks, severely disrupting his marketing business near Swindon, southwestern England and hitting his partner’s work, too.
“It’s a shambles at the moment and is only going to get worse as we move into the winter months,” said Lane, 34, in an interview. Eventually, he found a test but only after taking his son on a 150-mile round trip.
Stories like Lane’s are being told all over Britain as the government’s new test and trace service is pushed to breaking point. Six months after the pandemic caught ministers unprepared and plunged the U.K. into its deepest recession in a century, history is at risk of repeating itself.
Back in March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to lock down the country because there was no testing program to keep track of the outbreak. Now, labs are swamped again as the virus spreads and even the premier says the service can’t cope with the “colossal” surge in demand.
Anxious government officials know they must avoid what Johnson admits would be a “disastrous” second national lockdown to save the economy and that fixing the testing crisis urgently is vital. But it could take weeks to sort out the mess and the risk for Britain’s struggling companies — and their workers — is that by then it will be too late.
“Continuing delays and a shortage of tests saps business, staff and consumer confidence at a fragile moment for the economy,” said Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. “A truly comprehensive Test and Trace program is essential if the U.K. is to manage the virus without further lockdowns which will cripple businesses.”
Johnson Pledges Millions of Covid Tests But U.K. Labs Can’t Cope
U.K. gross domestic product plunged a record 20% in the second quarter and there are growing warnings that unwinding the Treasury’s wage support measures will trigger a wave of unemployment in the months ahead. At the same time, virus infections are spreading rapidly again, with almost 4,000 new cases reported on Wednesday.
The government — and companies — need the test-and-trace system to work to get people safely back to offices but instead ministers are being forced to ration testing and focus resources on those who need them most.
‘Crisis in Confidence’
“This is very serious,” Jeremy Hunt, chair of the House of Commons health committee, told BBC Radio on Wednesday. “There is a big crisis in public confidence and we’ve got winter approaching.”
Prolonged uncertainty has hurt the hospitality industry in particular. About 100,000 jobs in pubs, restaurants, bars and hotels have already been lost, and a further 900,000 are at risk if the government doesn’t bring in additional support measures when its furlough wage support program ends on Oct. 31, according to UKHospitality, the main lobby group.
“One company I’m associated with has 14% absenteeism due to self-isolation, so its crucial that workers are tested and are able to come back to work,” said Andy Palmer, who formerly led Aston Martin. “The lack of testing is certainly a concern.”
But the test and trace system is failing in key metrics. People are waiting longer for their results: only a third of tests in community testing centers came back within 24 hours in the week up to Sept.9, according to the latest government figures. That is down from two thirds the week before. It matters because getting results quickly can help reduce transmission.
The service is also falling short of its goal of tracing 80% of people who have been in close contact with a confirmed virus case to tell them to self-isolate.
There are also glitches in the system — the government accepts there have been coding problems with the booking website, though insists these haven’t denied anyone tests, and patients report being directed hundreds of miles away even though local testing centers are not busy.
When Steve Rawlinson, a 49-year-old computer programmer from north London, could not book a test, he drove to his “completely empty” local center, where staff told him to pretend to apply from Glasgow, Scotland. That generated a QR code that worked in London and gave him access to a test closer to home.
A Covid-19 drive-in test centre stands empty in Leicester, on Sept. 16.
Photographer: Darren Staples/Bloomberg
Even though the government acknowledges demand is intense, it’s not using all the tests it does have. Stung by early criticism about inadequate capacity, officials steadily ramped it up over the summer to about 225,000 potential swab tests a day.
Yet data show the capacity for swab tests has exceeded the number of tests carried out by more than 25,000 every day since the middle of May. Since April 1, this totals more than 10 million potential tests that could have been carried out but were not.
On Wednesday, Johnson defended the program by citing data showing the U.K. is testing more people per capita than any country in Europe, and reiterated his pledge to boost capacity to 500,000 a day by the end of October. He’s also set his sights on a “moonshot” bid to develop a so-called pregnancy style test that would enable millions of people a day know their Covid status — something he said would facilitate a return to life close to normal.
Taiwan and South Korea are examples of countries where established test-and-trace programs allowed governments to avoid the need for costly lockdowns.
Much is riding on whether Britain can emulate them in the next few months. Having potentially Covid-free people being forced to self-isolate because they can’t verify if they have the disease will carry a severe economic cost, leaving parents potentially juggling child care with work commitments and many people unable to go into their workplaces. The political price for Johnson of a second lockdown will be huge.
For Amy Hortop, however, the cost of the government’s testing failures is impossible to repay. The 31-year-old from south Wales missed her grandfather’s funeral because the only test available was a six-hour round trip away. “That is something that I am never going to be able to get back,” she said.
(Adds comment from Andy Palmer in 11th paragraph)
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