Coronavirus: This is what really happens when you try to get a Covid test

The health secretary claims testing is widely available — but how easy is it to get a Covid test? Harriet Sinclair shares her experience

Wednesday 23 September 2020 09:40 BST
People queue up outside a coronavirus testing centre offering walk-in appointments in east London
People queue up outside a coronavirus testing centre offering walk-in appointments in east London (PA)

It’s 3pm on Saturday, and I’m standing in a car park begging a bouncer to let me past the barriers. I’m not at a daytime rave or the opening of an exciting new store — but a coronavirus testing centre in East London.

My attempt to get a Covid test began first thing in the morning, after my son woke up with a hacking cough.

His childcare is in an area that’s seen a spike in coronavirus cases — one of them confirmed at his nursery, though not, we are assured, in his bubble. And so there is no need to panic. But given that his grandparents are involved in nursery pick-ups and drop-offs, and that his new cough is somewhat alarming, a test seems sensible unless we want to isolate for two weeks and miss work, nursery and human contact.

At 7am, I hit the NHS testing website, imagining we will be able to access one of the local walk-ins or a drive through. Perhaps as a last measure we can order a home test, and stay in for a few more days while we wait for the results.

Not so.

The options for home testing and walk-ins are blank on the website — futile clicks bring up nothing. These options are ‘unavailable’.

Fine, we have a car so a drive-through is manageable. Unfortunately, the closest (and only) one is an hour and a half’s drive, in Guildford, 68 miles away. A long car journey with my toddler isn’t ideal, usually punctuated with screaming intermingled with the Hey Duggee theme tune — but needs must. I click on the Guildford option.

No appointments. None on Saturday, none on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. I am told to check back in the evening, when more appointments may become available.

By this point, I’m panicking slightly. The cough is worse, the lad is grumpy — although he is mildly entertained by the pantomime of covering his mouth with his hand while he coughs. I Google the increase in cases in our local area and find that there is a walk-through testing centre about 20 minutes’ drive away; we just need to call 119 for an appointment. Excellent.

I call 119, and am played a long message telling me demand is high, there are no appointments available on the phone and to try NHS online. I try NHS online again, am re-offered an appointment in Guildford. I click again. Nothing.

I am losing faith that I will ever manage to get a test, but discussions on the topic on Twitter suggest I should just turn up at a test centre anyway and try my luck.

I’m slightly dubious about this but hitting refresh on the NHS website and redialling 119 is starting to give me RSI, so I bundle the toddler into the car and head for the testing centre, imagining a long queue followed by a fair bit of negotiating.

Part of that, at least, is correct. There’s no queue but there’s also no entry without an appointment.

“You need an appointment to get a test,” the security guard tells me over the sound of my child’s coughing. “Go to the NHS website and you can get one.”

I regale him with the tale of my morning, the calls to 119 and constantly refreshing the website, while pointing at my coughing son.

“You need an appointment,” he repeats. This isn’t his first rodeo. Luckily, it’s not mine either, and so we begin a long conversation about testing that culminates in him begrudgingly agreeing to ask his manager if they can offer a walk-in test. “It won’t make any difference,” he adds, as he walks off to ask his manager. “We’ve been told no walk-in tests, there are appointments online.”

Eventually, he returns from a chat with his manager.

“Does he even have symptoms?” he asks, gesturing to my son, as I nod away and explain the hacking cough.

“You know, if he takes a test that means someone who made an appointment won’t be able to get one.”

I have now been attempting to get a test for more than eight hours, and so my patience is starting to wear slightly thin.

“Are you telling me there is the exact number of tests for the amount of appointments you have booked?” I ask him. “Well, no,” he admits. “But we have to keep some back for emergencies.” He doesn’t go into what kind of emergencies prevent a symptomatic 20-month-old baby from being offered a test in the midst of a coronavirus second wave. One can only imagine.

“This is an emergency to me. I’m by myself, I have no childcare without a test, I need to work, and I’m worried that my kid has Covid,” I say, prompting my toddler to helpfully say ‘Cough’ while pointing at himself. I’m under no illusions that I have had anything to do with the change of heart, but my child seems to have won him over.

“Ok, you can go in,” he says as we brace ourselves for a crowded tent full of coughing coronavirus sufferers. Only, there isn’t one. No queue to get into the tent, no one standing where the footprint signs have been stuck to the floor to remind us to social distance. No need for social-distancing, in fact, because there is barely anyone there. Ahead of me, one woman is being handed a test (via a plastic-covered post-box) for her two children. And… that’s it. Three people inside an enormous tent-covered car park, where multiple staff stand around waiting to sanitise the numerous, empty bays.

The staff are wonderful, we get a test and some instructions, they smile at my toddler and show us which bay to go into to take the test — long enough for us to exchange pleasantries.

“You’re lucky to get in here,” one member of staff says. “They turned away 100, 150 people at the gates today.” Did they, I marvel. “You must be so busy,” I say to another. “Not so much at the moment,” he replies.

Back at home, I click refresh on the computer to see if there’s anything I have missed. Did I put the post code in correctly? Did I explain that there were symptoms present? Would the testing centre come up again if I double, triple checked everything? No. Just Guildford again — no appointments available.

The day before I had spent hours attempting to get a test for a small child, Matt Hancock urged the public not to believe stories they read about a lack of appointments. “Do not believe these stories when they appear in newspapers saying there aren’t tests available here, there are tests available in every part of the country,” he told the BBC. 

And, it seems, there are, but whether or not you're able to take one is another matter entirely.

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