Covid: Lateral flow tests unavailable to order online for fourth day in a row

Downing Street says there were 649,000 orders made for the rapid tests on Wednesday

Sam Hancock
Thursday 16 December 2021 18:21
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Lateral flow tests (LFTs) were still unavailable to order from the government’s website on Thursday – marking the fourth consecutive day the rapid Covid testing devices have been largely out of stock in the UK.

The shortfall comes amid surging cases of the Omicron variant, as well as official guidance changing this week from instructing contacts of people with coronavirus to isolate at home to instead perform daily self-testing.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman on Thursday acknowledged that the massive increase in demand for testing was a “challenge” for labs.

He said: “Our turnaround times have performed well, I think, given the massive upsurge in testing, which is to be welcomed.

“We know that will be a challenge for our laboratories. And I think the public will understand that we are further ramping up capacity to help mitigate that. We urge everyone to come and get the PCR test as required and as needed, because we do have sufficient capacity.”

The spokesman said the capacity for posting out lateral flows was also increasing, after 649,000 orders for the tests were received on Wednesday alone. There was no indication of when they would become available online again, though.

Turning to PCR tests, he added: “150,910 PCR test kits were dispatched yesterday, over half a million processed on Tuesday I believe our PCR testing capability is among the highest in the world.

“And we are indeed going further, increasing booking slots at physical test sites by more than 100,000. And we’ve secured an increase in PCR testing capacity of 200,000 a day and are going beyond that, procuring additional lab capacity.”

Earlier in the week, a bleak image was circulated on social media of walk-in PCR tests being temporarily unavailable in every single region of England, however this has now changed. Currently, only London has “very few available”, while all other parts of the country are showing as normal.

Despite this, though, lateral flows remain largely unobtainable. Visiting the necessary gov.uk page shows the warning message: “Sorry, there are no home delivery slots left for rapid lateral flow tests right now.”

On the same page, UK residents are told they can visit their local pharmacy to pick up tests instead – with England being given a “collect code” system to do so – but various reports since Monday have suggested these too are extremely hard to come by.

The shortages have left ministers and health officials “flying blind” in their attempt to assess the severity of the current Omicron wave, as reported by The Independent this week.

Senior sources from across Whitehall said that disruption to the supply of PCR tests and rapid lateral flow devices would leave decision-makers lacking vital data, making it harder to assess if further restrictions should be imposed in the run-up to or immediately after Christmas.

As part of the UK’s evolving Covid measures, sparked by the fast spread of Omicron, Mr Johnson announced last week he was scrapping self-isolation for double vaccinated contacts of those with Covid – and instead asking people to take daily lateral flow tests for seven days, whatever their age.

While a warning was put in place that even if tests showed as negative, those taking them are “strongly advised” to limit contact with others, the advice is clearly conflicted by the lack of devices currently available.

Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the government has a duty to ensure tests are “readily available” to the public.

Speaking to The Independent, he said: “The government have clearly set a lot of stall in use of LFTs, so they must ensure that they’re readily available, either by delivery or at pharmacies. Some people who have been exposed to Omicron will be infected by the virus, so if they’re unable to test themselves may be tempted to just go about their daily business regardless.

“Either the government want people to self-isolate after they’ve been exposed or they want them to take daily tests and if it’s the latter, it’s unreasonable not to ensure that they’re readily available. Some people might come under pressure from employers to turn up at work without having taken a test and end up spreading Omicron to a lot of people.”

Another expert insisted that the proper use of LFTs could significantly reduce the number of people getting infected, making their absence a “serious” issue.

“We know that omicron has given rise to several super spreader events, it is therefore a serious problem that people can’t get access to the tests right now when they may in fact be one of the most important tools we have available in terms of reducing the spread of the virus and slowing the growth of the epidemic,” Irene Peterson, a professor of epidemiology and health informatics at UCL, told The Independent.

“Let’s say the tests identify four out six infectious individuals who have been in close contact, and three are able to isolate, that would half the number of people who would otherwise spread the virus.”

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