A “nightmare” shortage of Covid tests is preventing healthcare staff from coming into work, NHS sources have warned as hospitals in England treat 10,000 patients for the virus for the first time since March.
Thousands of NHS workers are stuck in isolation or unable to enter clinics amid persistent supply problems with lateral flow and PCR tests.
Hospital chiefs were warned about ‘patchy’ access to tests at a top-level meeting on Wednesday, and told to ‘be patient’ while the supply issue was resolved.
It came as the UK saw another record increase of 180,000 new cases.
Boris Johnson repeated his call for Britons to take lateral flow tests before New Year’s Eve parties, despite the extensive shortages.
Labour shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting said: “The failure to make enough tests available weeks after they became a requirement is a total shambles.“People are trying to do the right thing, follow the government’s own advice, and test themselves regularly, but are prevented by the conservative Government’s incompetence.”
As access to testing worsens in Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said testing appointments would be prioritised for “essential workers” such as NHS and transport staff.
The number of Covid patients admitted to hospitals has continued to increase while the NHS in England recorded it had 10,000, Covid positive patients in NHS beds – the highest level since March this year. Meanwhile daily hospital admissions for the UK continued to climb and reached 1,213 on 21 December.
Under the government guidelines for England, health and care staff and other essential workers, are meant to be prioritised for testing.
Despite this, hospital and GP leaders in England have reported chronic problems in staff accessing both lateral flow and PCR tests.
NHS England officials told an internal conference call on Wednesday that staff should be “be patient and keep refreshing the booking appointment page every 30 minutes.”
One executive at a large NHS trust said the issue had become a “nightmare” with staff contacting them saying they couldn’t get hold of lateral flow tests.
“It seems to me you’ve got to get up at 6am to get and be first 50 on the website, today again we’ve had loads of staff sing up and say we’ve had a household positive contact, we need to do lateral flows we can’t get any from anywhere.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents all hospitals in England said: “Trust leaders are today reporting delays in the return of PCR test results and problems accessing lateral flow tests.
“Given the current pressures on the NHS due to staff absences, it’s vital that NHS staff get prompt access to the tests they need to ensure they can return to work as quickly as possible.
“Government, national NHS leaders and local NHS leaders, some of whom operate PCR testing capacity, need to work together rapidly to identify and resolve any issues including looking at whether we need to reserve dedicated testing capacity for NHS staff for a period.”
Earlier this month The Independent revealed NHS hospitals were told during the summer to stop getting their own supplies of lateral flow tests and ask staff to use the government website instead.
Data last week revealed 18,829 staff NHS were off because of Covid, includes those isolating as well as those with Covid symptoms.
The government is facing some calls to cut the Covid isolation period to five days to match a similar move in the United States.
However, Mer Johnson has said there are no plans for the UK to follow suit; currently, isolation can end at seven days if a person tests negative on day five and day six.
This guidance is also applicable to health and care staff but those who work with “especially vulnerable” people may still have to isolate for 10 days. NHS sources say this means the changes do little to relive workforce pressures as many staff will come under this category.
Mr Hopson said: “Trust leaders are currently grappling with the need to keep vulnerable patients safe from catching Covid in a healthcare setting and ensuring staff who are having to isolate due to Covid can safely return to work as quickly as possible.
The key concept here is safe return. Trusts have worked very hard over the last 18 months to minimise levels of nosocomial infection – COVID caught in a healthcare setting – and we must follow the science and evidence on what is safe and what is not.”
A UK Health Security Agency spokesperson said almost eight million test kits would be made available to pharmacies by New Year’s Eve.
It added more than 100,000 PCR booking slots have been made available since mid-December and that it was continuing to rapidly expand capacity, as delivery of tests has “doubled” to 900,000.