Government’s system sends people on round trips of 350 miles for Covid tests

Testing centre - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Europe
Testing centre – Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Europe
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

People with symptoms of Covid are being sent on round trips of 350 miles because the Government’s system thinks people can “walk on water,” critics have said. 

Patients are being instructed to embark on journeys of hundreds of miles, because the Test and Trace mapping system directs them “as the crow flies” rather than following standard route planners. 

As a result, patients in Ilfracombe in Devon have been told to drive to Swansea in Wales. The short hop of 30 miles across the Bristol Channel takes around six and a half hours by car, driving 175 miles in each direction. 

Those in Felixstowe, Suffolk, have been directed to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, with the Government coronavirus test booking website saying it is just 13.8 miles away, although it is 40 miles by car. And patients in Weston-super-Mare have been directed to a testing centre in Cardiff – a journey of 54 miles by road, or 13 miles across the sea.  

It comes amid shortages of tests across the country, with testing capacity reduced in some areas and diverted to those with outbreaks. 

As a result, patients are being increasingly directed to sites hundreds of miles away. 

Patients in Kent have been directed to testing sites in Edinburgh, 470 miles away, while those in London have been told to go to the Isle of Wight. 

MPs said testing capacity has “completely evaporated” in some parts of the country.  Labour’s Ian Mearns said his Gateshead constituency has so few tests available they have run out by 10am.

Government officials said local shortages were occurring because tests were being diverted to the areas most in need of them.

But in some parts of the country, patients said they had gone to testing sites which claimed to be fully booked, only to find them empty. 

Government sources said ofificals were attempting to fix glitches, so that those seeking tests would not be advised to travel more than 75 miles. However, this means that in areas with insufficient capacity, patients instead would be told to try again later. 

Officials said they were still attempting to make changes to their mapping systems to ensure that travel times reflected road journeys, rather than trips by air or sea. 

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for “urgent action” to address the problems.

He said: “The booking system clearly has no appreciation of local circumstances; indeed it’s as if it thinks people can walk on water to get to their nearest testing centre. “

One person from Felixstowe who tried to book a test online said: “If I was travelling by boat, then Clacton would be my nearest test centre.

“I tried to book online but was only given the option of going to Clacton so I called 119. The operator got the same results. They told me that it is not just my region – some people in Newcastle are being directed to test centres in Scotland instead of ones in the city.”

The online system for home tests uses the credit-check database to verify identity before sending out a test. But many people have failed to be verified through the online system, often because they have moved house. In such situations, those with symptoms are advised to call 119.

But one man who did that after he could not be verified online system said that when he called 119 he got an automated message saying they were “out of stock”. 

As a result, he was left facing a 10 mile round trip on foot, despite feeling unwell. 

“It’s an absolute disgrace,” he told The Telegraph.

“The Government is saying we have one of the best testing systems in the world, yet when you try to ring 119 an automated message tells you they are out of stock. 

“The only option for people that feel unwell is to walk for miles to a walk-in centre.”

Anthony Hall, from Broadstairs, Kent, said he tried to book a slot online to have a swab test at nearby Manston for his two-year-old daughter after she started showing symptoms of the virus.

But he was only given the option of Harwich Port and he was told others in the area had been sent to Edinburgh.He said: “The only option I was given was Harwich Port in Essex.

“In the end I drove to Manston, which was empty except for one other car, and one of the guys working there said they’d had people coming in who had been told to go to Edinburgh.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “NHS Test and Trace is working – we are working to increase national testing capacity and hundreds of thousands of people are being tested every day.

“There is a high demand for tests and our laboratories continue to turn test results around as quickly as possible. To make sure we stay in control of this virus we are targeting our testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, as well as prioritising at-risk groups.

“We are expanding testing capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October – as well as bringing in new technology to process tests even faster.”

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