NHS Test and Trace is directing people to test centres 175 miles away

Another NHS Test and Trace shambles as it’s revealed the website is directing people to Covid-19 test centres up to 175 MILES away

  • People with coronavirus symptoms are being told to drive several hours away
  • This is despite the fact their closest centre is only a few miles down the road 
  • A person from Ilfracombe in Devon is directed to a test centre in Swansea
  • But their nearest test centre is in Taunton, 61 miles (98km) away 
  • Labour said problems should be resolved as a ‘matter of urgency’
  • The flaw is the latest in a stream of criticism against the NHS Test and Trace

The NHS Test and Trace system is directing people to Covid-19 test centres up to 175 miles (281km) away from their homes, it has been revealed.

People with coronavirus symptoms who try to book a test online have reported being told to drive three hours to reach their ‘nearest’ centre.

And some of them have had to drive past closer testing centres on their way to the farther ones because of a flaw in the Government’s booking system. 

In one example, a person from Ilfracombe in Devon could be instructed to make the mammoth journey to a test centre in Swansea, across the Bristol Channel.

It would see them drive 175 miles each way, past their nearest drive-through in Taunton, 61 miles (98km) away, as well as Bristol and Cardiff on their six-and-a-half hour round trip.

Labour said problems with the booking system should be resolved as a ‘matter of urgency’. 

The website flaw is the latest in a stream of criticism against the NHS Test and Trace system, which is considered key to getting Britain back on its feet.

Statistics show the success of contact tracing has dwindled every since its launch at the end of May, with less Covid-19 patients and their contacts picking up the phone.

The Government recently decided to axe 6,000 call handlers to bolster local health teams instead, after it was revealed tax-paid employees were being ‘paid to watch Netflix’. 

A person from Ilfracombe in Devon is directed to a test centre in Swansea, across the Bristol Channel. It would see them drive 175 miles both ways, past their nearest drive-through in Taunton, 61 miles (98km) away. People with coronavirus symptoms in Felixstowe, Suffolk, have been directed to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, 40 miles (64km) away, despite there being a centre in Ipswich. A person in Gosport, Portsmouth, is directed to the test site at Chessington World of Adventures, in Greater London, a 67-mile (108km) journey. But the closest testing site is just 11 miles away (17.7km), in Portsmouth city

According to the Press Association, people with coronavirus symptoms in Felixstowe, Suffolk, have been directed to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex.

The NHS coronavirus test booking website saying it is just 13.8 miles away.

However, the journey is 40 miles (64km) by car, taking almost an hour to get from one place to another.

And people in the region with symptoms of Covid-19 would be forced to drive past their closest test centre in Ipswich on their way to Clacton. 

One person from Felixstowe who tried to book a test online told the news agency: ‘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.

HOW SUCCESSFUL DOES CONTACT TRACING NEED TO BE? 

Scientists have repeatedly warned that 80 per cent of all infected people and their close contacts needs to be reached and isolated within 24 hours to keep a lid on the epidemic. 

Contact tracers need to catch 80 per cent of infections and test suspected patients within three days to keep coronavirus epidemics squashed, a study from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands found.

The researchers said the reproduction R rate can be kept under one as long as only two in 10 patients slip under the radar.

Any more than that risks driving the R – the average number of people each coronavirus patient infects – to the point at which the crisis could spiral again.

And people need to be swabbed and given results within three days to ensure they aren’t tempted to go outside and mingle with others when results don’t come back. 

Dutch researchers used mathematical modelling to predict how contact tracing systems with varying success could influence epidemics.

It found that if testing is delayed by three days or more, even a system that is able to trace 100 per cent of contacts with no delays cannot bring the R value below 1.

Another study by researchers from University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found three quarters of people with Covid-19 would need to be tested and self-isolate to prevent a second wave caused by schools reopening in September. 

Experts found that, to prevent a second wave when schools reopen, the NHS contact tracing system must reach 68 per cent of cases and their contacts.  

But the current NHS system is ‘not good enough’. It reaches half of contacts and only a fraction of symptomatic cases are tested, according to the team.

One of the study authors, Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at LSHTM, said the NHS is currently reaching an overall standard of 50 per cent.

‘Currently, test, trace, isolating (TTI) is not achieving the levels that we modelled. Looking at the NHS reports from the TTI system, it looks like it’s about 50 per cent coverage.’

Official figures published on Friday reveal tracers managed to track down just 71.3 per cent of close contacts of infected people in the week ending August 12, the worst figure since the service launched.

And some 77.6 per cent of Covid-19 patients were reached in the week to August 12, compared with 81 per cent in the week ending July 22, 79.2 per cent on July 29, and 78.3 per cent on August 5.

‘I have symptoms so am going to get them checked out. But I can imagine that others would be put off by the prospect of two hours in the car – while driving past their actual nearest centre.’

Another example shows that a person in Gosport, Portsmouth, is directed to the test site at Chessington World of Adventures, in Greater London, taking an hour-and-a-half for a 67-mile (108km) journey.

But the closest testing site is just 11 miles away (17.7km), taking 26 minutes, in Portsmouth city. 

A person with Covid-19 symptoms in Weston-super-Mare is directed to a testing centre in Cardiff – which takes more than an hour in the car.

However, there is a drive-through testing site at Bristol airport around 25 minutes away.

Some people with a Southampton postcode are being directed to Swindon – around a four-hour round trip.

Problems with the booking system have been highlighted from early on in the crisis but it appears that glitches in the system are yet to be rectified.

It seems the system flaw disproportionately affects those on the coast because the website thinks their closest location in distance is across water.

Labour said it was ‘hugely disappointing’ that the issues were still occurring and called on the Government to address the issues as a ‘matter of urgency’.

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: ‘From the first days when testing centres were being rolled out, we have heard stories of people being sent unfeasibly long distances just to get a test, but for this to be still happening at this stage is hugely disappointing.

‘Quick and easy access to testing are cornerstones of an effective test and trace system but once again the Tories seem unable to get the basics right.

‘They must solve these problems as a matter of urgency.’ 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘NHS Test and Trace is working, it’s completely free and is stopping the spread of coronavirus.

‘Regional testing slots are allocated based on the nearest testing site with availability and we are working to ensure this takes into account journey times. 

‘Anyone with symptoms across the UK should get a test as soon as possible.’ 

It comes after official figures published on Friday reveal parts of the NHS Test and Trace system are performing at their lowest level. 

Tracers managed to track down just 71.3 per cent of close contacts of infected people in the week ending August 12, the worst figure since the service launched.

This dropped from 74.2 per cent during the previous seven-day spell and was down on the 91.1 per cent reached in the first week of Test and Trace (week ending June 3).

The Government claims the three per cent decrease is ‘mainly due to delay in processing’ which saw 681 people not having their cases transferred to the system until after the week ended.  

The contact tracing system is also getting worse at getting in touch with Covid-19 patients who have been referred after testing positive. 

Some 81 per cent of patients were traced in the week ending July 22, before free-falling to 79.2 per cent on July 29, 78.3 per cent on August 5 and 77.6 per cent the week to August 12.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that 80 per cent of all infected people and their close contacts needs to be reached and isolated within 24 hours to keep a lid on the epidemic.

Justin Madders, Shadow Health Minister, said: ‘It’s deeply concerning the numbers are heading in the wrong direction again this week, with so many of the close contacts of people who have tested positive, and over 40 per cent of people in the same households, not being reached. 

‘We urgently need to get test and trace back on track.’

The pressure to improve the system has intensified this month as pupils prepare for a return to school in September. 

Even though research suggests children do not play a large role in the spread of Covid-19, school re-openings could lead to a second wave because parents also have to go back to work and other lockdown measures have been eased.

That’s unless contract tracing is up to scratch, a study this month revealed, which researchers said was not the case.

In the early days of its launch, the NHS Test and Trace system faced criticism for employing too many call handlers who had nothing to do.

A leaked document seen by the BBC in the first week of running revealed most Britons diagnosed with coronavirus were giving just one close contact to the Government’s track and tracers.

Experts suggest people are hesitant about handing over phone numbers of friends and family and decide to tell them about their diagnosis themselves. 

It’s also thought people don’t want to answer ‘unrecognisable’ 0300 numbers. 

To fix the problem, Downing Street announced on August 10 they would focus on a more ‘boots on the ground approach’ – by giving local health teams the resources to go and knock on the doors of people who are cooperating with the national scheme. 

Officials announced that the system would be revamped to use more local resources to stamp out outbreaks.

Local authorities will work with the NHS to set up their own contact tracing system to plug holes in the national scheme.

The changes were the clearest acknowledgment yet by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government that the centralised way of tracking down Covid-19 cases and their contacts has come up short.

At the same time, some 6,000 call-handlers – a third of the workforce – will be axed from the central government-run contact tracing system by the end of August amid claims they do not have enough work to do and are paid ‘to watch Netflix’.   

The £10-an-hour contact tracing staff have complained they are have been sitting around idle without any work to do, passing the time by watching Netflix, playing with their dog or upholstering furniture.

A Department of Health spokesperson said at the time: ‘The new NHS Test and Trace service is up and running and is helping save lives. Anyone in this country can now book a test and the majority who book a test get the results back within a day.

‘We have over 25,000 contact tracers in place, who have all been trained and are fully supported in their work by public health experts.’

The Government has been urged to cancel contracts with private companies Serco and Sitel to run the Test and Trace system after acknowledging local health teams are best for the job.  

Mr Madders said: ‘We now need a plan of action from Ministers that sets out what they are doing to address these huge holes in the contact tracing system.

‘If this means supporting local areas to establish their own local contact tracing systems and ending the failed contract with Serco – as Labour has been calling for, for some time – then Ministers must get on and implement this without delay.’  

NHS Test and Trace is headed by Baroness Dido Harding, who has said there is ‘no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus’.

Tensions have been further fuelled by the appointment of Lady Harding as the head of the new National Institute for Health Protection – an organisation set to replace Public Health England (PHE).

Health Secretary Matt Hancock faced scathing criticism for handing the reins of PHEs replacement to the Tory peer who has no scientific background.

Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, said the new role ‘makes about as much sense as Chris Whitty being appointed the Vodafone head of branding and corporate image’. 

That was a reference to Harding’s previous stint as chief exec of telecoms giant TalkTalk – where she oversaw one of the worst data breaches in the UK that saw hackers to steal bank details from 157,000 customers. 

Mr Hancock defended the decision to install Harding as the head of the new National Institute for Health Protection, telling BBC News: ‘She’s simply the best person who could be doing this job now.’  

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