UK's creaking COVID-19 test system puts health services at risk

LONDON, Sept 15 (Reuters) - Britain’s testing system for COVID-19 was creaking on Tuesday as a bottleneck prevented people including medics from getting a test in a potential threat to key health services, health sector organisations said.

In an attempt to slow one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the West, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised in May to create a “world beating” system to test and trace people exposed to the virus.

“Our members are telling us that lack of access to testing for staff is a major barrier to them delivering services,” said Layla McCay, director at the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector.

“We are significantly concerned that some people with symptoms of COVID-19, including healthcare workers and their families, are having difficulty in accessing tests due to insufficient laboratory capacity,” she said.

Attempts by Reuters reporters to get a COVID-19 test on Tuesday were greeted with a notice on the government’s website saying: “This service is currently very busy. More tests should be available later.”

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represent hospital trusts in England, said a growing number staff were unable to come to work because they or someone they live with had COVID-like symptoms but couldn’t get tested.

He said hospital bosses were working in the dark as they did not know why there were shortages, how long they were likely to last, how geographically widespread they were nor what priority would be given to healthcare workers.

Britain advises those showing symptoms to get a test though it says the system has been burdened by people with no symptoms asking for tests. Some schools have demanded any ill students get a test or stay away for 14 days.

The health ministry said the country’s COVID-19 testing capacity was the highest it had ever been but there was “significant demand” from people who did not have symptoms.

“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,” the ministry said.

Parliament Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said on Tuesday he was receiving numerous complaints from people unable to get tests after displaying COVID-19 symptoms.

“This is completely unacceptable and totally undermines track and trace,” he wrote in a tweet. (Reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by David Clarke)