Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has called on the UK government to be more forthcoming about the scale and nature of a coronavirus testing backlog, saying she has “very serious concerns” that delays are affecting the timely reporting of infections.
In a separate intervention, Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, told the Financial Times the army should be brought back to help with testing amid reports of severe shortages of tests in north-west England.
NHS Test and Trace, England’s tracking service, was last week forced to acknowledge that lack of laboratory capacity had created a “critical pinch point”.
The problem appears to have worsened since schools returned at the start of the month. Several people told the FT they had struggled to access tests for themselves or their children after another child in the year group had contracted the disease.
According to the latest data, on Sunday there was capacity for 374,917 tests across the UK; 227,465 were processed. About 3,330 new positive cases were reported that day.
Ms Sturgeon told a coronavirus briefing on Monday that the UK government had sought to limit access to regional mobile test centres over the weekend because of the backlog.
The Scottish government on Monday reported there had been 70 positive tests for Covid-19 the previous day, down from 244 reported on Sunday — but Ms Sturgeon suggested the “massive reduction” was likely to be caused by testing problems rather than a fall in infections.
Most coronavirus tests in Scotland are conducted as part of the UK-wide system, but the first minister suggested the Scottish government was not being given access to information about the backlog.
“We need the UK government to share the full scale and nature of the issues they are facing and the impact that they are having in Scotland in order that we can collectively and very quickly find solutions,” Ms Sturgeon said.
She said Jeane Freeman, Scotland’s health secretary, had “managed to resist” proposals at the weekend to limit access to slots at mobile and regional testing centres in Scotland and that these remained operating at full capacity, but that the delay in turning around results was causing very serious concerns.
LBC, the radio station, said it had discovered there were no tests available in any of the top 10 Covid-19 hotspots in England, all in the North.
Responding to the LBC report, the health department said it was “wrong” to say testing was not available in those areas “and our capacity continues to be targeted where it is needed most”.
“While we are seeing significant demand, over a million tests are being processed every week — with around 200,000 every day on average over the last week,” it added.
Troops ran 218 mobile testing stations until the end of July when they were handed over to private contractors. Mr Burnham told the FT: “I would like to see the army back in, anything that brings it closer to the public sector is better.”
Bolton and Gateshead councils have reported that mobile units did not appear as expected over the weekend, meaning people with an appointment had to go elsewhere.
Residents in Bolton, the UK’s worst affected local authority area, said they had struggled to book tests locally on Monday. The council urged people to keep trying as new slots were made available throughout the day. Bolton, Oldham and other places with high levels of infection have walk-in centres that do not require an appointment.
In Oldham people were turned away from the walk-in centres at the weekend without explanation. Arooj Shah, deputy council leader, said it was “a shambles”. David Greenhalgh, leader of Bolton council, said the situation was “unacceptable”. “Two new sites are currently operating below capacity, and our own residents cannot access a local test.”
Meanwhile, new rules limiting social gatherings to a maximum of six people in England came into effect on Monday.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, Conservative MP Kit Malthouse indicated that any individuals concerned that their neighbours were not following the new rules should “think about” reporting them to the authorities.
“It is open to neighbours to do exactly that through the non-emergency number. And if they are concerned and they do see that kind of thing, then absolutely they should think about it.”
He added: “Discussions about what reporting mechanisms there might be, but there is obviously the non-emergency number (101) that people can ring and report issues they wish to”.
His comments were later criticised by Labour’s Angela Rayner who described his suggestion as a “snoopers charter”.