Problems in the testing process for COVID-19 threatens more disruption for NHS

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The current problems around testing shortages for COVID-19 are starting to impact on the NHS service recovery and winter preparations warns NHS Providers. Demand for tests is soaring as schools return and the infection rate rises. Tests have been unavailable in some areas of the country, whilst in others there have been lengthy queues. Processing capacity in laboratories is also contributing to backlogs.

Yesterday, in the House of Commons, Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted to experiencing “operational challenges,” which, he said the government is “working hard to fix.” He suggested a timeline of “a matter of weeks” to fix these challenges and in the meantime confirmed that prioritisation for tests would be implemented, with acute clinical care staff accorded top priority followed by the social care sector.

Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary challenged the Health Secretary, saying that extra demand on the system was inevitable when schools, universities and colleges returned and students working in the lighthouse labs returned to university and that the government has failed to plan for this eventuality. He pointed to estimates from Imperial College that the virus is doubling every 7-8 days and accused the Health Secretary of losing control of the virus.

NHS Providers has highlighted the concerns of Trust leaders that if family members of NHS staff are unable to access a test forcing staff to also self-isolate it will take valuable staff away from the front line where they are needed. As the NHS prepares for winter and continues to recover other services and planned activity suspended during the first peak of the pandemic, an increase in staff absences due to a lack of testing ability will accelerate pressures across the system.

Trust leaders, it says, are particularly concerned about the lack of appropriate, detailed operational information on the situation, such as how big the shortfall in testing availability is and how long the shortages will last for, which is preventing them from managing the problem effectively.

Chief Executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, says: “It’s clear that there are current capacity problems with the testing regime. Trust leaders from Bristol, Leeds and London have all raised concerns over the weekend about the lack of testing availability leading to greater levels of staff absence. It’s not just access for tests for staff members themselves, it’s also access for their family members as NHS workers have to self-isolate if their family members are unable to confirm if they have COVID-19 or not.

“The problem is that NHS Trusts are working in the dark – they don’t know why these shortages are occurring, how long they are likely to last, how geographically widespread they are likely to be and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests. They need to know all this information so that they can plan accordingly. For example, Trusts need to know if they should try to create or re-establish their own testing facilities as quickly as possible.

“Trusts also have a concern about the impact of testing shortages on patients who need to be tested prior to planned hospital treatment. We’re aware of a small number of examples of patients being unable to get such tests, which cuts across Trusts’ ability to restore services in the way they have been asked to do. We are concerned, for example, that patients waiting for hospital treatment can no longer highlight this fact when applying online to access a test. We need to prioritise tests for healthcare workers and their families and patients coming in for treatment, many of whom have already waited longer than normal.”



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