UK Today

Tackling testing delays ‘number one’ priority

Plans to prioritise coronavirus tests and put NHS staff at the top of the list will be published in the coming days, the justice secretary has said.

People in care homes would also be a priority, while schools could also be considered, Robert Buckland said.

Resolving delays with testing was “the number one issue”, he added.

It comes as the mayor of Greater Manchester – home to England’s highest infection rate – said time was running out to fix the testing system.

“I think we have two or three weeks to fix these things,” mayor Andy Burnham told the BBC’s Newsnight programme. “If we don’t, the worry is we’ll never gain control as we head into autumn and winter.”

Bolton NHS Trust in Greater Manchester said on Tuesday that around 100 people had turned up to accident and emergency asking for a test.

Mr Burnham called on the government to work with local authorities to establish where there are shortages and where capacity should be focused.

Mr Buckland said the government would “do whatever it takes to make sure we have that capacity” and there was a “big determination within government” to improve the system and minimise disruption.

He said testing centres would be increasing from about 400 to 500 in the next few weeks and the government was opening laboratories “across the country”.

As well as prioritising tests for the NHS and social care, he said schools were also important because of its “knock-on effect to the working lives of parents and carers”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will announce who will be prioritised for tests in the coming days.

A surge in demand for coronavirus tests has led to local shortages, with many people reporting problems securing online bookings and being directed to test sites hundreds of miles from home.

The large Lighthouse laboratories, run by the government to analyse test swabs from all the UK nations, have been under strain to process them all.

A new lab is due to be up and running but that could be a few weeks away – and until then ministers say current problems are likely to continue.

On Wednesday, Mr Buckland said 90% of tests done in person were being returned in a day but “there was much more work to do” to turn around home tests.

Mr Hancock, speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, said rising demand for tests meant the government was “having to prioritise once again and I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation”.

Data on backlogs in labs is not publicly available, but Mr Hancock said it was “less than a day’s capacity”. That means it could be anywhere up to 244,000.

The Department of Health has said about a quarter of people requesting tests have no need to do so – and only those with relevant symptoms should book.

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