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The Welsh coronavirus testing shambles: tests gone by mid-morning, no slots, broken websites

Your pregnant wife has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, she now has a high temperature and is struggling to keep food down, but she is not allowed to go to a hospital or seek medical help because she has to have the test first.

But there are no tests available, anywhere.

This is the situation Steve West has found himself. He has been using his laptop, his phone and a tablet all at the same time every night for six hours constantly refreshing the booking website trying to arrange a test for his wife, who is 24 weeks pregnant, and their children aged six and 12.

He is getting nowhere and has still not been able to book a test near his Swansea home.

“I’ve been going out of my mind trying to get a Covid test,” he says. “A close family member who we have all had contact with in the last few days has tested positive as well as his partner.

“Shortly after we found out they had tested positive our eldest developed a consistent cough and a bit of a temperature and the same goes for my wife who is also struggling to keep any food down.

“She has been unable to attend her scan and appointment with the consultant because they won’t see her until she has a test. We have spoken with her GP, the midwife, Morriston hospital as well as calling 111 and 119.

“The GP and hospital won’t see her unless she has had a test for Covid and the midwife can’t call because of the same reason.”

Like thousands of people across Wales and the rest of the UK, Steve is struggling to get a test for his family as the system strains under increased demand.

Wales has become heavily dependent on England’s testing system – part of its test, track and trace operation which Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised would be “world-beating”. Yet this is now buckling as case levels rise across the UK and demand for testing has grown as schools return.

Around 220,000 tests are processed each day, according to UK government figures released last week, with a testing capacity of more than 350,000 – which includes swab tests and antibody tests. The aim is to increase that to 500,000 a day by the end of October. Only up to 10,000 tests a day are being done in Wales.

But an increase in demand for coronavirus tests as pupils return to school and more people are reporting symptoms has left the computer system unable to cope, with some people being directed to test sites hundreds of miles from their homes.

Dr David Bailey, BMA Cymru Wales council chair, called the problems appalling and said they must be solved if we are to stop coronavirus spreading.

He said: “In recent days we’ve heard concerning reports from members of the public, unable to access Covid-19 tests due to labs reaching capacity.

“We have reached a critical point in the fight against Covid-19 and this failure in the testing strategy is quite frankly appalling.

“An effective test and trace system is crucial in managing our response and reducing case numbers, and if people cannot get tested then there is no way of identifying local outbreaks and minimising community spread.

“The Welsh Government must provide an urgent update on how it plans to address this failure that threatens Wales’ ability to reduce the spread of this deadly virus.”

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Back in Swansea, Steve West described the system as “an absolute joke”.

“I know there is a drive in centre about a mile from our address because I had to use it a couple of months ago. I put in our address, yet when entering the details on the site it gives a different response every time, it either says the service is busy try again later or that the postcode is not recognised,” he said.

“I’ve tried five different Swansea post codes as well as two Cardiff postcodes. When it did finally accept the postcode, which has happened only twice in the past two days, it comes back saying there are no test sites in your area please try another post code. I am sitting there with the laptop, phone and tablet being constantly refreshed but are not able to get anything.

“I’ve got better odds winning the lottery than being able to book a test.

“We are getting really concerned about the effect this could be having on our unborn baby.”

Testing people and then tracing the contacts of those infected is considered vital to stop the disease from spreading.

Anyone showing symptoms of coronavirus should be able to be tested.

The symptoms are:

  • a fever
  • a new continuous cough
  • a loss of smell or taste

The idea of testing is to find people with the virus and keep them isolated to avoid it being spread through the wider community.

The current test involves taking a swab from the nose and throat swab and then sending it off to be processed at a lab.

Despite the problems, the government maintains anyone with symptoms should still apply for one.

Until you can get a test it’s important you and your household self-isolate.

How to get tested:

  • Go online, or call 119, before going to a drive-through or walk-through testing site – or a mobile testing unit. But people have faced long waits on hold on the phone, and have struggled to book online
  • Order a home testing kit in the first four days of having symptoms – although some home kits are not being made available to clear backlogs in laboratories

These stories are not unique.

The House of Commons was told how a dad from the Black Country near Birmingham took his sick child on a 76 mile journey for a test in Wales only to be told on arrival that the tests had run out.

In England, people are turning up at A&E in Bolton – the area that currently has the highest rates of Covid-19 in the UK – in the hope of getting a test. They are being urged not to as the hospital is seeing a rapid increase in the number of people needing hospital treatment, especially among white men in their 40s and 50s, for Covid and it fears it will not be able to cope.

Cardiff mum Sarah Morris’ said it took her seven hours of trying before she was able to book a test at the drive in centre in the grounds of the Cardiff City stadium.

On Friday, Rhondda Cynon Taf council leader Andrew Morgan was furious after it emerged that the testing centre set up in Porth to speed up access to testing in an area on the brink of a local lockdown was only able to offer 60 tests a day.

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He said he had been told that the UK Government had made a unilateral decision to limit the number of tests because of the shortage across the UK.

He said that the centre itself had the capacity to offer 400 to 500 tests a day but the centre does not process the tests and the UK is facing a shortage of lab capacity to process the results.

At short notice, the Welsh Government, RCT council and the ambulance service came up with a way to offer more tests through the centre in Porth by using testing capacity in the Welsh NHS. But it has led to criticism that Wales has been too dependent on England.

Wales’ makeshift patching system was again called on in the Cynon Valley on Tuesday, where it is understood that the drive-through testing centre run by outsourcing firm Serco in Abercynon had run out of tests by 11am.

RCT leader Andrew Morgan tweeted: “Absolutely dispair at the UK testing system, hearing now that the Abercynon Serco run site has “run out of tests” and the Local Health Board and Public Health Wales are trying to do a local fix to make sure at least RCT residents that are booked there today can get a test within the county.”

Wales is acting to boost its own capacity to do tests so that it is not so reliant on the UK’s struggling Lighthouse Labs.

In the Senedd on Tuesday, First Minister Mark Drakeford said Public Health Wales laboratories in Cardiff, Swansea and Rhyl will start processing swabs 24 hours a day next month.

People are being recruited to staff laboratories dubbed “hot labs” in hospital with the aim of speeding up the time it takes for people to get a test result back.

Yet, even with £32m being spent in Wales to speed up testing, job interviews for those 160 posts are only just starting and those labs won’t open until November. That isn’t going to be quick enough to solve the very real problems happening right now.

England is talking about limiting testing to the most in need groups, including health and care sector workers, but there is no indication yet if that will become the policy in Wales as well.

Wales says it has the capacity to do 15,000 tests a day yet only 7,902 tests results came back done on Tuesday. And at the moment, the vast majority of tests are being done by the English labs. Data from the Welsh coronavirus portal shows that there were 1,954 new “testing episodes” in the Welsh NHS on Tuesday and 3,002 done by England’s Lighthouse Labs.

The delay in testing is also having a huge impact on schools across Wales, with one union warning that they are at “breaking point”.

School leaders’ union NAHT Cymru is calling for teachers to be given priority testing because the delays are leading to staff shortages.

Director of the union in Wales, Laura Doel, said: “We are receiving an alarming number of reports that school staff are struggling to get test appointments or home testing kits for coronavirus.

“Some school staff have been offered test appointments over a hundred miles away, as far apart as Cardiff and London in the south and one staggering case of someone in Bangor being offered an appointment in Inverness.

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“Return to school plans are predicated on having certain levels of staff to maintain all safety measures. It is simply unacceptable that staff who are displaying symptoms have to remain off work for days in some cases waiting to be tested and have the results.

“This is putting a considerable strain on the school workforce and it is only a matter of time before classes or even whole schools have to close due to staffing issues. They have known for a long time that this was going to happen and that there would be more demand when children returned to school.

“We have a particular problem in Caerphilly because agencies don’t want to send teachers there because of the lockdown.

“There has also been an issue with home testing kits in Denbighshire. Members who have done the test have been contacted by the labs to say that because of the backlog they are unable to process the swabs in time before they go out of date, so people are still having to self isolate for 14 days.

“Schools are playing their part in return plans but they cannot do it alone; tests need to be available so those who are fit can return to work and those who are not can isolate, and the track and trace process be initiated.”

A lack of coronavirus tests for NHS staff is also leading to staff absences and services being put at risk, hospital bosses have warned.

The problem of testing is gripping the whole of the UK.

In one baffling anecdote, Twickenham MP Munira Wilson said her constituents couldn’t get a test when using their own postcode, but if they put in an Aberdeen postcode they could.

England’s health secretary Matt Hancock did not explain the reason for the error – but urged the public not to “game the system.”

He acknowledged that there were “operational challenges” in the testing system as he was summoned to answer an urgent question on the situation in the Commons on Tuesday.

Mr Hancock said an updated prioritisation list would be published setting out who will be at the front of the queue for tests.

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

“Throughout this pandemic, we have prioritised testing according to need. Over the summer, when demand was low, we were able to meet all requirements for testing, whether priorities or not.

“But 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.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson, said: “The problems people have been experiencing when trying to book a test are directly related to the ongoing UK-wide issues with the Lighthouse Lab system, which we urgently need to see resolved at a UK level. The Health Minister has repeatedly raised this with the Secretary of State for Health.

“We are moving as much NHS Wales testing capacity as we can into areas where testing is needed the most, as well as taking urgent action to switch over testing facilities to Welsh laboratories to further increase capacity while the UK Government resolves these issues with the Lighthouse Lab system.”

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