Reports of serious problems with the UK’s coronavirus testing system first surfaced about a week ago, with stories of people being asked to travel hundreds of miles to get a Covid swab test. 19.
Since then, official figures have since shown a recent drop in the number of people being tested every day in England.
Clearly something is going on. But getting answers from the UK government is proving to be a frustrating business.
Ministers tend to want to dwell on the UK’s “capacity” to test, rather than the actual number of people being tested.
Testing capacity “is based on laboratory reports on how many tests they are able to perform each day based on the availability of staff and resources.”
This number is high and increases, but it does not indicate the proper functioning of the rest of the system.
The latest NHS Test and Trace figures in England show that 436,884 people were tested between 27 August and 2 September.
That’s about 25,000 fewer people than the previous week, or a drop of almost 6%.
In other words, an average of 62,400 people a day were being tested in the latest figures, compared to highs of 66,000 a day. These are the lowest figures since the end of July.
Please note that the latest statistics only take us to September 2nd. We’ll have to wait to find out what was going on at test facilities across England last week, when people who couldn’t do a test within a hundred miles of home were generally reported.
What is the official explanation?
On Tuesday Sarah-Jane Marsh, director of testing at NHS Test and Trace, posted a tweet in which she offered her “sincere apologies to anyone who is unable to take a COVID test currently”.
He added: “All of our test sites have capacity, so they don’t look overcrowded. It’s our lab processing (sic) that’s the tipping point. We’re doing everything we can to expand quickly.”
This followed quotes from official sources who suggested that there had been a large rise in demand for evidence and that the government evidence reservation website prioritized high-risk areas.
On Wednesday the story took a new turn, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson telling the House of Commons: “Demand is at an unprecedented level, mainly due to the demand from asymptomatic patients.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock delved into this, saying: “In recent weeks we have seen an increase in demand, including an increase in demand from people who are not eligible for tests and from people who have no symptoms. .
“We have seen a 25% increase in people who have no symptoms and are not eligible …
“We need to be firmer, I’m afraid, with the rules on eligibility for testing.”
Changes to the testing website
The Department of Health and Social Care has not released the data behind the “25% increase” quoted by Matt Hancock.
But we know that government advice on who should take the test and the website where the tests were booked has changed in recent days.
Take a test today and the rules are clear. With some strict exceptions, you should have symptoms:
Archived versions of the same website late last month show that there were more options available to mark for people who may have no symptoms:
On a later page of the test reservation system he was asked if he had symptoms, but replied that “no” did not stop the booking process.
Therefore, until recently it was possible to book a coronavirus test online if you have no symptoms of the disease. Can people be blamed for taking advantage of this feature?
Or did the government not make it clear that most asymptomatic people do not need any evidence?
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care told FactCheck: “We have always been clear if you have symptoms of coronavirus or if a clinician or local authority asks us to get a test, then you should ask for one.
“Although our capacity is the highest it has ever been, we see a significant demand for evidence. That’s why we’ve simplified the booking process and updated the guidelines to make it clear that if you don’t have symptoms of coronavirus and haven’t been asked, you won’t be able to get tested, as this can prevent other people who need it from doing it. a. “
Both Mr. Hancock and Mr. Johnson have suggested that the stories of people who are told they drive for hours to take a test do not tell the whole picture.
Boris Johnson said Wednesday that: “The average trip is less than 10 miles if someone has to make a trip to get one.”
Hancock was even more accurate yesterday and told MPs, “The average distance traveled to a test site is 6.4 miles and 90% of people booking a test travel 22 miles or less.”
As with the 25% increase in asymptomatic patients, the figures supporting this backup are not publicly available.
We understand that the Department of Health and Social Care may publish the underlying statistics on the average distance traveled in the future.
UK government ministers have made a number of claims to defend the Covid-19 test regime in England, which is said to have experienced problems in recent weeks.
Many of the claims are based on information that has not been made public, making it impossible for them to be independently verified.
Matt Hancock has suggested in interviews that members of the public were using the testing system inappropriately.
But until recently, the system allowed people to book a test online even if they were asymptomatic, and the government has had to change the booking system to make the rules clearer.