LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – When Mr Martin Lane needed a coronavirus test for his five-year-old son, he spent two days trying to book one without success.
The alternative to getting tested was for the whole family to isolate at home for two weeks, severely disrupting his marketing business near Swindon, south-western England and hitting his partner’s work, too.
“It’s a shambles at the moment and is only going to get worse as we move into the winter months,” said Mr Lane, 34, in an interview. Eventually, he found a test but only after taking his son on a 240km round trip.
Stories like Mr Lane’s are being told all over Britain as the government’s new test and trace service is pushed to breaking point.
Six months after the pandemic caught ministers unprepared and plunged the UK into its deepest recession in a century, history is at risk of repeating itself.
Back in March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to lock down the country because there was no testing programme to keep track of the outbreak.
Now, labs are swamped again as the virus spreads and even the Premier says the service can’t cope with the “colossal” surge in demand.
Anxious government officials know they must avoid what Mr Johnson admits would be a “disastrous” second national lockdown to save the economy and that fixing the testing crisis urgently is vital.
But it could take weeks to sort out the mess and the risk for Britain’s struggling companies – and their workers – is that by then it will be too late.
“Continuing delays and a shortage of tests saps business, staff and consumer confidence at a fragile moment for the economy,” said Mr Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce.
“A truly comprehensive Test and Trace programme is essential if the UK is to manage the virus without further lockdowns, which will cripple businesses.”
UK gross domestic product plunged a record 20 per cent in the second quarter and there are growing warnings that unwinding the Treasury’s wage support measures will trigger a wave of unemployment in the months ahead.
At the same time, virus infections are spreading rapidly again, with almost 4,000 new cases reported on Wednesday (Sept 16).
The government – and companies – need the test-and-trace system to work to get people safely back to offices, but instead ministers are being forced to ration testing and focus resources on those who need them most.
‘CRISIS IN CONFIDENCE’
“This is very serious,” Mr Jeremy Hunt, chair of the House of Commons health committee, told BBC Radio on Wednesday.
“There is a big crisis in public confidence and we’ve got winter approaching.”
Prolonged uncertainty has hurt the hospitality industry in particular.
About 100,000 jobs in pubs, restaurants, bars and hotels have already been lost, and a further 900,000 are at risk if the government doesn’t bring in additional support measures when its furlough wage support programme ends on Oct 31, according to UKHospitality, the main lobby group.
“If we are to successfully encourage more people into their workplace safely, then the test and trace system will be a key component,” said Mr Matthew Fell, policy director at the UK’s biggest business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry.
“Having a faster turnaround in getting results will let people know where they stand and whether they need to self-isolate or can return to work quickly.”
But the test and trace system is failing in key metrics.
People are waiting longer for their results: Only a third of tests in community testing centres came back within 24 hours in the week up to Sept 9, according to the latest government figures.
That is down from two-thirds the week before. It matters because getting results quickly can help reduce transmission.
The service is also falling short of its goal of tracing 80 per cent of people who have been in close contact with a confirmed virus case to tell them to self-isolate.
There are also glitches in the system – the government accepts there have been coding problems with the booking website, though insists these haven’t denied anyone tests, and patients report being directed hundreds of miles away even though local testing centres are not busy.
When Mr Steve Rawlinson, a 49-year-old computer programmer from north London, could not book a test, he drove to his “completely empty” local centre, where staff told him to pretend to apply from Glasgow, Scotland.
That generated a QR code that worked in London and gave him access to a test closer to home.
Even though the government acknowledges that demand is intense, it’s not using all the tests it does have.
Stung by early criticism about inadequate capacity, officials steadily ramped it up over the summer to about 225,000 potential swab tests a day.
Yet data show the capacity for swab tests has exceeded the number of tests carried out by more than 25,000 every day since the middle of May.
Since April 1, this totals more than 10 million potential tests that could have been carried out but were not.
On Wednesday, Mr Johnson defended the programme by citing data showing the UK is testing more people per capita than any country in Europe, and reiterated his pledge to boost capacity to 500,000 a day by the end of October.
He’s also set his sights on a “moonshot” bid to develop a so-called pregnancy style test that would enable millions of people a day know their Covid status – something he said would facilitate a return to life close to normal.
Taiwan and South Korea are examples of countries where established test-and-trace programmes allowed governments to avoid the need for costly lockdowns.
Much is riding on whether Britain can emulate them in the next few months.
Having potentially Covid-free people being forced to self-isolate because they can’t verify if they have the disease will carry a severe economic cost, leaving parents potentially juggling child care with work commitments and many people unable to go into their workplaces.
The political price for Mr Johnson of a second lockdown will be huge.
For Ms Amy Hortop, however, the cost of the government’s testing failures is impossible to repay.
The 31-year-old from south Wales missed her grandfather’s funeral because the only test available was a six-hour round trip away.
“That is something that I am never going to be able to get back,” she said.
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