U.K. Covid Test Demand Is ‘Significantly Outstripping’ Capacity

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Demand for coronavirus tests is “significantly outstripping” the capacity available, the U.K.’s testing chief said.

The number of people calling the Covid-19 phone helpline and visiting the government website totaled three to four times the number of tests, Dido Harding, head of the National Health Service Test and Trace program, told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on Thursday.

Harding was giving evidence as the government’s testing program comes under increasing pressure to deal with a surge in demand following the return of children to school and as people head back to work.

To compound matters, cases are rising exponentially again after falling off over the summer. Some 3,395 new positives were reported Thursday, and the caseload over the past week has been at levels not seen since May. The Telegraph newspaper reported late Thursday that hospitals and local councils have been told to find extra beds over the next two weeks in preparation for a second spike in the disease.

U.K. Covid Test Demand Is ‘Significantly Outstripping’ Capacity

As the pandemic spreads again, more and more parts of the country are becoming subject to local lockdown measures. On Friday, people in parts of northeast England will be banned from socializing with members of other households in private homes and gardens, and leisure and entertainment facilities won’t be allowed to open between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., the Department for Health said in a statement. The areas covered are Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham.

The rising caseload increases the urgency of ensuring test and trace works efficiently. But government data out Thursday showed that the turnaround time for tests is getting worse: only a third of tests in community testing centers came back within 24 hours in the week to Sept.9 -- down from two thirds the week before.

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 in order to tell them to self-isolate.

The government is preparing to outsource management of the “end-to-end” supply chain for the test and trace system by issuing a tender next month, the Telegraph said. Logistics companies such as Amazon and DHL could be in the frame to win the contract, the newspaper said.

Overstretched Labs

Many people across the country have struggled to get a test on the government website, and if they do get one, the appointment is often dozens, if not hundreds of miles away.

Harding confirmed that officials are actively restricting the number of people who can get tests because laboratories don’t have capacity to process the samples.

“It would be very dangerous to send too many samples back to the laboratory, have them not be processed and people not know what their results were,” she said.

Pressed on whether the government should have foreseen the surge in demand in September, Harding said: “I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the really sizable increase in demand that we’ve seen over the last few weeks. In none of the modeling was that expected.”

She said she was confident that the government would reach its target of processing 500,000 swab tests a day before the end of October, adding: “I strongly refute that the system is failing.”

Health Minister James Bethell said it was still the government’s ultimate ambition to set up a mass “moonshot” testing program, but he did not recognize the figure of 10 million tests a day.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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