How a lack of national Covid testing capacity is hitting Lancashire

Demand at Lancashire's walk-in Covid testing sites is exceeding capacity “on a daily basis” and there will be “a crunch point” in efforts to keep up in the coming weeks, because of issues in the national system.

Tuesday, 15th September 2020, 8:13 pm
Updated Tuesday, 15th September 2020, 8:16 pm
There has been an increase in demand for Covid tests in recent days

That was the message from one of Lancashire County Council's top public health officials after it emerged that 1,558 residents came forward to be tested on Monday across the five walk-community test centres in Preston, Pendle, Burnley and Hyndburn, That is treble the average combined weekly usage of the sites when they were first set up over a month ago because of high case numbers in those areas.

Abdul Razaq, consultant in public health at County Hall, told the authority's health scrutiny committee that the “substantial surge” was partly as a result of the return of pupils to school and also “inappropriate usage” for holiday or employment reasons.

However, he also pointed to a lack of capacity with national elements of the testing service – such as the mobile units which travel across Lancashire and the county’s drive-through centre at the park and ride in Walton-le- Dale.

He said that those facilities, designed for people showing Covid symptoms, were currently either “switched off or at very low capacity” - adding to pressure on the community testing sites. The latter were originally intended for asymptomatic testing in parts of Lancashire with high Covid rates, but are now attracting people from across the county who cannot get a test elsewhere.

Mr. Razaq stressed that, in areas with a community testing unit, residents without symptoms were still eligible to get a test based on a national agreement to that effect for so-called “areas of intervention” – in spite of recent warnings from the health secretary that capacity was being swallowed up by people seeking a test when they were not unwell.

“The community testing stations [use a] different kit to the mobile units. At the moment, the supply of these kits is constrained – and we are trying our level best to get further supplies from the department of health and social care (DHSC).

“The community test sites cannot take the strain by any stretch of the imagination for all testing to completed [there] - that’s not what they were geared up to do,” Mr. Razaq warned.

He said that an “in principle” decision had been taken to move the community testing facilities to a five-day a week operation - rather than six or seven days – because of the difficulty in obtaining testing kits.

However, he also revealed a plan to set up one fixed-point local testing site in all 14 Lancashire council areas during the autumn – with the aim of two such units being operational in each district by the end of the year.

“[They are] a booth-type operation - you walk in, the test kit is available, you self-swab and you get the result within 24 hours,” Mr. Razaq said, adding that Lancashire had asked the government to “fast-track” the facilities for the county.

Currently, Covid testing in Lancashire is available via permanent centres in Preston and Blackburn – plus community facilities in high case areas and mobile sites which pop up at various locations.

Pendle has already received its first permanent local testing site, which is open 12 hours a day and requires an appointment for people with symptoms.

However, committee member and Pendle Council's deputy leader said it was already attracting people “from many miles away”.

“We’re almost back to the point where testing was abandoned earlier in the year and Covid-19 ran rampant – why has the summer been squandered?” County Cllr Whipp asked.

Fellow committee member and Burnley councillor Lian Pate said that there was “confusion” in the community about who was eligible to use the testing facilities and when they should do so.

The committee also heard that staff at the community test facilities in Lancashire were subject to hostility from people who failed to appreciate that their results might take several days to come back.

“It is highly intensive work in a high-pressure environment. The staff have to face residents who are anxious – and some [are] directly abusive,” Mr. Razaq said.

When operating normally, the drive-through and mobile testing sites aim to return results quicker than the community stations because they are largely dealing with symptomatic people - within 24-48 hours - but members heard that, nationally, that ambition was only being achieved in around a quarter of cases.

Sumaiya Sufi, from Lancashire County Council’s safeguarding adult service, also warned that there are “significant delays” in obtaining results from the routine testing of staff and residents in care homes.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that difficulty in obtaining tests has led to “huge pressure” on the NHS 111 non-emergency number in Lancashire in the last week.

Dr. Amanda Doyle, chief officer of the Lancashire and South Cumbria integrated care system told the committee:

“The 119 number and website [for pre-booking Covid tests] recommends that people call 111 if they have a problem – and those sites are continually putting messages up saying no tests are available. [This is] making it really difficult to get through calls.”

The health secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday that it will be “a matter of weeks” before the national testing capacity issues are resolved – although there is still no detail on exactly what is causing the problem.

Professor Alan McNally, from Birmingham University’s Institute of Microbiology and Infection told the BBC earlier this week that it was the most closely guarded secret in the UK”.

In a statement issued after the County Hall meeting, Neil Jack, chair of the regional co-ordination group on the Lancashire Resilience Forum, said: "The community testing site in Preston closes at 3pm. Given the length of queues at the site, the queue was closed [on Monday] so that everyone [there] would get tested in advance of the closing time.

"The demand on the community testing sites has increased enormously since schools reopened, due to lack of laboratory capacity in the national system and the restrictions on available appointments at other sites.

"Lancashire has requested additional testing capacity from the government, to support the needs of our communities."

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown added: “The national situation surrounding testing is clearly having an impact on our community testing sites and has resulted in the need to prioritise Preston residents, due to our current infection rates and local restrictions. Over the last week or so, we have seen a significant rise in demand at the two community testing sites based in Preston, with record numbers of attendance [on Monday].

"While hosted by Preston City Council, these sites are administered by the Director of Public Health at Lancashire County Council, whose advice and lead we have followed throughout the pandemic. We are in regular dialogue about the management, promotion and location of these sites and are working together to deliver the best outcome we are able in the current circumstances."

Responding to the issues raised at the meeting, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care insisted: "NHS Test and Trace is working."

"Our capacity is the highest it has ever been, but we are seeing a significant demand for tests. New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for people with symptoms and we are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, and prioritising at-risk groups.

“Our laboratories are processing more than a million tests a week and we recently announced new facilities and technology to process results even faster. If you do not have symptoms and are not eligible to get a test you can continue to protect yourself if you wash your hands, wear a face covering and follow social distancing rules.”

The government says it aims to carry out 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. The latest daily figure stands at 213,000.