Amid COVID testing chaos, UK says: We're trying to fix it

SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, England (Reuters) - Amid growing anger over a bottleneck in Britain’s creaking coronavirus testing system, the government promised on Wednesday to do whatever it takes to boost laboratory capacity that has left people across the land with no way to get a COVID-19 test.

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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.

But repeated attempts by Reuters reporters to get COVID-19 tests failed, while at a walk-in testing centre at Southend-on-Sea in eastern England hundreds of people were queuing to get a test - some from as early as 0500 GMT.

“Laboratory capacity has been an issue, we are working our way through that,” Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Sky News.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure we have that capacity,” he told BBC TV. “We know where the pressure points are, we are piloting new walk-in test centres.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday that fixing the system would take weeks. Buckland said health workers, care home workers and school children and their parents should get priority for tests.

Though Britain’s testing problems are acute, other major European countries have also had hiccups.

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Germany introduced free tests for returning travellers this summer on concerns over rising infection numbers, but it backtracked only a few weeks later as labs faced capacity constraints while a data blunder in Bavaria meant around 1,000 people with positive results were not told.

France is conducting around 1 million COVID-19 tests per week, according to the government, but it is struggling to keep pace with demand. Long queues snake outside testing centres in Paris, and often stretch around the block. Very few appointments are available for tests for several weeks in advance.

In Britain, the chairman of parliament’s health committee, Jeremy Hunt, said testing capacity would have to be significantly boosted so that everybody could have a test.

“If that sounds a long way out - if we roughly quadruple the testing capacity that we’re currently planning, not 500,000 a day, but 2 million a day, you would be able to test everyone in the population once a month,” Hunt said.

Reporting by Hannah McKay in Southend, Guy Faulconbridge in London, Christian Lowe in Paris and Maria Sheahan in Berlin; writing by Kate Holton, editing by Estelle Shirbon and Jon Boyle