The UK government’s ability to inform people rapidly that they have tested positive for coronavirus has collapsed, with just 8 per cent of the people in England who were told they were infectious on Tuesday having had the test that day or on Monday.
At the start of September, before schools reopened, the testing system was reporting positive test results the same day or the following day to 63 per cent of those with the virus, according to data derived from the government’s Covid-19 dashboard.
The collapse in testing speeds, first reported by statistician Chris Drake, meant that on Tuesday, half of those receiving a positive result had taken the test at least three days earlier, and for a quarter of the cases the news took four days or more to come.
The delays in testing will leave more people self-isolating and unable to return to their workplaces or potentially spreading the virus further by returning to work before receiving their results.
This problem will be amplified after the government’s decision to prioritise testing for NHS workers, patients and those in care homes with full details of those able to get tests in future to be set out soon by the Department of Health.
On Tuesday, Matt Hancock, health secretary, admitted the testing system faced “operational challenges” which would take “weeks” to resolve.
Last week, the NHS test and trace system admitted that turnround times for the majority of tests, which are taken at satellite testing centres or via home-delivered kits, were “getting longer” and took on average 80 hours to deliver a result, double the time in early July.
Mr Hancock conceded there was a shortage of tests, that the government was having to prioritise those working in the health system for tests and that members of the public were often having to travel miles to get any tests that were available.
This is now showing up in the daily data released by the government on caseloads, which are increasingly being reported as positive samples taken from many days before being reported.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt defended the government’s record on testing but admitted that the return of schools and office working had placed pressure on the system.
“The root cause, and what is different between now and what was happening in July and August is that everyone is trying to get back to work and kids are in school,” he said.
“What is happening now is that if one person gets the virus in an office, then the office manager is trying to get everyone in the office tested.”
However, Mr Hunt also acknowledged the importance of mass testing, adding: “It is totally reasonable when you have a virus which the majority of people don’t show symptoms, for people to be very keen to get tested as quickly as they can.”
On Tuesday, Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, described the testing delays as “completely unacceptable”.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Hoyle said: “I am receiving numerous complaints from residents unable to book a test after displaying Covid symptoms. This is completely unacceptable and totally undermines track and trace so I have raised my concerns with ministers to push for action to be taken as a matter of urgency.”