Doctors have criticised the coronavirus testing system as “an utter shambles” after it emerged that some are being told to undertake round trips of up to 522 miles to get swabbed.
Hospital medics and GPs have described how delays of up to four days to get a test and five days to receive the result forces them to isolate and means they cannot work normally in the NHS.
A dossier of cases being collated by the Doctors’ Association UK discloses how a male GP in Margate in Kent who was displaying symptoms was told to travel 266 miles to Leeds in West Yorkshire to have a test.
In another case a hospital doctor in Basildon, Essex, had to undertake a 500-mile round trip to Glenfield hospital in Leicester. When the occupational health department at his NHS trust could not provide a test they advised him to use the test and trace website instead.
“I had to try for 36 hours to get a slot and then that involved a 250-mile drive, which my partner had to take a day off work to do.
“I then had to isolate while waiting for a result, which took five days, during which my colleagues had to cover me. Utter shambles,” he said.
A GP in Brighton and her partner, who is a doctor in a hospital, both had to isolate for eight days due to her inability to get a test locally for four days, despite checking availability several times a day.
“Once I finally went to get tested, it took a further four days to get the result. My whole family were isolating for this period; that’s a GP and hospital doctor who are unable to see patients whilst waiting for testing and results,” she said.
The disclosure that doctors are facing problems getting tested comes amid mounting concern among MPs of all parties that the system in England is experiencing major problems. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, warned last week that the test-and-trace system is “on the verge of collapse”. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has defended its performance and blamed problems on too many people who do not have symptoms of coronavirus seeking a test.
Sarah-Jane Marsh, the hospital boss who is NHS test and trace’s director of testing, offered a “heartfelt” apology for people being sent long distances away from home. “It’s our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch point. We are doing all we can to expand quickly,” she said.
Family doctors are disadvantaged in the search for tests because, unlike hospitals, GP surgeries do not have occupational departments, which could organise a test for them. A female GP in Gloucester had to self-isolate for six days before she could get a test for her child. Another family doctor, who was told to go to a testing centre 120 miles away, said: “I had to refresh the website about 10 times over 12 hours to get a test near me. A less diligent citizen would have given up.” A third GP, in Colchester in Essex, had to isolate for an extra two days while waiting for a slot to become available at their local testing site after initially being told to go 110 miles to Ramsgate in Kent.
Dr Rinesh Parmar, the chair of the DAUK, said: “The current arrangements for Covid-19 testing are an utter shambles. We have key workers, such as GPs and hospital doctors, who are unable to access testing, having to self-isolate and ultimately not see patients.
“With an already stretched NHS workforce and 8,274 doctor vacancies in England alone prior to the pandemic, we can ill afford to have doctors self-isolating due to a lack of available testing.”
NHS staff should get priority access to testing, Parmar added. Hancock last week opened up the possibility of introducing a ranking system when he said that Conservative MP Laura Farris’s proposal that working parents and teachers deserved priority was “a good point”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said that NHS staff already had priority for testing. “NHS test and trace is working and our capacity is the highest it has ever been. But we are seeing a significant demand for tests, including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible.
“We have always sought to prioritise our NHS health and care workers, who are eligible for testing whether symptomatic or not, and new booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for those who need them.
“Our laboratories are processing more than a million tests a week and we recently announced new facilities and technology to process results even faster.”
Responding to the DAUK’s evidence, Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “Throughout this crisis the failure of ministers to properly protect frontline NHS staff has been one of the most unforgivable mistakes. To leave hospital doctors and GPs exposed and struggling to get a test is another staggering failure. The testing fiasco need fixing urgently and ministers need a credible plan to roll out regular routine testing of all frontline NHS staff to give them the protection they deserve.”
Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, said: “It’s clear the test and trace system in the UK is on its knees. It is unfathomable that medical professionals, on whom we all rely, are finding that they are unable to access vital tests.
“Recent reports of reduced testing capacity and the obvious flaws in our tracing system are utterly inexcusable. The government’s claim to have created a ‘world-beating’ system looks increasingly ridiculous as people see what is happening on the ground.”