Keir Starmer warns NHS Test and Trace system 'on the verge of collapse' as public struggle to attend appointments

Director of testing offers ‘heartfelt apology’ over failings in system

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Samuel Lovett
Tuesday 08 September 2020 19:08
Coronavirus in numbers

Sir Keir Starmer has warned that the NHS Test and Trace system is “on the verge of collapse”, after a senior official apologised to those who have been unable to get a check for coronavirus.

The Labour leader called on Boris Johnson to “take responsibility” for a system which he said had told people needing tests that none were available or asked them to travel hundreds of miles for an appointment.

The service’s director of testing Sarah-Jane Marsh today offered a “heartfelt apology” to anyone unable to get a Cover-19 test, explaining that while testing sites have capacity, the system was experiencing a “pinch-point” in laboratory processing.

“We are doing all we can to expand quickly,” she said. “The testing team work on this 18 hours a day, seven days a week. We recognise the country is depending on us.”

Labour branded the situation a “fiasco”.

But Matt Hancock - who yesterday said no-one should have to drive more than 75 miles for a test - told the Health and Social Care Select Committee that problems with testing capacity will be sorted “in a matter of a couple of weeks”.

Matt Hancock answers questions on the coronavirus crisis in the House of Commons

“We are working incredibly hard,” the health secretary told MPs.  “We are doing everything we can. We have had these operational issues that I have talked about, we have had a problem with a couple of contracts.”

Recent days have seen floods of complaints of the government's coronavirus test booking service offering appointments involving lengthy journeys, including residents in London being told to travel to Wales and those in Cumbria to head to Scotland.

One Conservative MP in Hampshire, Caroline Nokes, revealed her daughter had been told to travel to Inverness – a distance of almost 600 miles.

And Andy Thompson, from Crewe, said his six-year-old daughter had been unable to get a test for her continuous cough.

“It’s an absolute shambles. No home tests available. And now the nearest test centre is Oldham, a 100-mile round-trip with a sick child,” he told the PA news agency.

“I didn’t realise how bad it is. If you haven’t got a car, no way you’re getting tested.”

The reports have sparked fresh criticism of the Test and Trace system, which has missed its target of reaching 80 per cent of close contacts for 10 weeks running now.

“Can I please offer my heartfelt apologies to anyone who cannot get a COVID test at present," Ms Marsh tweeted on Tuesday.

“All of our testing sites have capacity, which is why they don’t look overcrowded, its our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch-point. We are doing all we can to expand quickly.”

Sir Keir said the stories showed a lack of “good governance” of the system, regarded as crucial to the UK’s chances of damping down Covid infection. The government should have used the summer, when cases were relatively low, to get an effective test-and-trace network in place, he said.

“What we’re now seeing is stories over the past few days that is showing the testing regime is on the verge of collapse,” said the Labour leader.

“Heartbreaking stories from people who need a test being told no tests are available.

Keir Starmer

“Or the website is crashing, or people are being told to go miles and miles for a test.

“Nobody can argue that that is good governance.”

He continued to support the principles of the government’s coronavirus restrictions, saying he did not want to “undermine” messaging during the pandemic.

But he criticised the government's own messaging as “confused”.

“We're seeing this increase in infection rate, that’s the time the testing regime needs to work and it's not working and the prime minister needs to take responsibility,” Sir Keir added.

The continued failings of the national testing system came as a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned that latest increase in coronavirus cases is “very worrying”.

“Generally, it is local outbreaks, but there is also very worrying increases in cases, particularly over the last few days,” Professor Andrew Hayward told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.  

“That is what we are really keeping a close eye on – the extent to which it moves away from these local outbreaks to broader community transmission.  

“What we saw in the last few days from this surveillance data was this worrying increase in cases which, as we know from the first wave of the pandemic, can potentially get out of hand if we don't be very serious about the control measures.”

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