The shambles of the national NHS Test and Trace system has been laid bare in Birmingham.
For while frustrated, anxious and ill Brummies were being directed more than 50 miles away for Covid tests, some of the city’s own testing centres, opened specially to deal with rising cases, are standing virtually EMPTY.
When we popped along to a new walk in test centre at the University of Birmingham to check out what was happening there, we expected to find a busy site.
Instead, we found around ten staff, including security, waiting for people to turn up – and just two people getting tests.
Both had just walked up and asked for one – including a single mum desperate to find out if her young son had the virus so she could get him back to school, freeing her up to get on with her vital work as a child therapist.
While talking to the mum we too were offered a test by a staff member, which we declined.
We saw around ten staff members at the site, one who said they were mostly there for security.
Meanwhile, annoyed and worried people following guidance and trying to book tests through the national service because they have symptoms were being told there were NO postal tests available, NO walk in appointments free.
Some have been told the nearest drive in testing appointments were in faraway locations including Cardiff and Manchester.
Among them was city councillor Cllr Waseem Zaffar, who posted on Twitter that he had tried to get an urgent test for his young son after he developed a cough but was told the nearest appointment was in Oldham – 96 miles away.
He later posted he had managed to get online later to get a test appointment the next day in the city.
But the delay and frustration is a story being repeated around the country, triggering confusion and upset.
Liam Byrne, Birmingham Hodge Hill MP, said it was a shocking state of affairs, particularly as Birmingham and the West Midlands contemplates more coronavirus restrictions.
He said: “We are now in real danger of a testing letdown leading to a city lockdown.
“As cases rise every citizen of the city has a responsibility to each other to help keep infection rates down by playing by the rules.
“But ministers are making a dog’s dinner of the testing system and frankly it’s time they got a grip.
“The only way to avoid self isolating the whole city is if those who’ve actually got Covid symptoms can get a test result fast and isolate themselves and immediate contacts. It is not rocket science.”
Fellow MP Preet Gill tweeted this morning: “There have been no end of stories of people unable to get a test or told to travel hundreds of miles. Despite the PM’s promises, his testing system has been anything but ‘world beating’. Is it any wonder that many think the PM’s ‘moonshot’ testing plans are just pie in the sky?”
A mum’s story
Among the people who were at the test centre at University of Birmingham’s South Gate entrance was a single mum, a child therapist, who had taken her seven year old son for a test after he developed a temperature overnight.
She told me she had tried in vain to book a test online, including a postal or walk-up option, as recommended but was repeatedly told nothing was available.
On the advice of a friend she turned up at this location, not far from her home, just in case.
She was immediately ushered in, and both she and her son were given a nasal swab test. The whole process took minutes.
“There was a positive test in the school my son attends so we wanted to be careful and get a test as soon as he got any symptoms,” she told BirminghamLive.
“We looked online but there were no tests available locally.
“But friends who had just turned up yesterday told me to try this, and that’s what I have done.
“They have told us the test will be back in one to three days.
“The guidelines are that if you have symptoms you should get a test, and stay home and not go back until you have done a test.
“But that is pointless if you can’t get a test.”
She added: “Not being able to get a test is crippling for me.
“I have patients waiting to be seen this afternoon. I now have to keep my son home, even though he is now looking and feeling a lot better, just in case, because I want to do the right thing.
“So he will now be stuck on a screen while I try to talk to my clients in another room. It makes things very difficult.”
The little lad said he had been back in school for three days and wanted to be at school, after waiting so long to go back.
As we were leaving, the mum encountered more problems getting onto the national website to register the QR code issued at the testing centre – without this, she will not be able to receive the results, and may have to book another test and start again if not resolved quickly.
“It’s all a shambles really,” she said.
The opening of the new community testing site at the university was announced two weeks ago and hailed as part of the drive to improve access to tests.
Residents, students and staff were told the site, situated in the South Gate car park near the Sports Centre, was offering testing for anyone with coronavirus symptoms, however mild, via a free, self-administered swab test that takes less than a minute.
We asked the Department for Health for a statement about the situation encountered in Birmingham.
They told us: “NHS Test and Trace is working and our capacity is the highest it has ever been but we are seeing a significant demand for tests including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible.
“New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for those who need them 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.”
By way of background information, they also advised that they ‘estimate’ that around 25 per cent of people booking a test are not eligible.
Their advice is as follows:
- We urge everyone to continue to play their part by following the guidance. Anyone with symptoms across the UK should get a test as soon as possible, as well as washing hands regularly, wearing face coverings and following social distancing rules to stop the spread of the virus.
- There has been no reduction in national testing capacity. Demand for testing is increasing and as such test sites in areas with higher prevalence will be prioritised, so we will provide higher volumes of testing. Areas with lower prevalence will have reductions of testing capacity so you may see emptier sites and less bookings available.
- Appointments are required for regional testing sites and once filled bookings will be offered at the next nearest regional site with capacity within the distance limit.