Sally Williams on the challenges in getting a covid test

I never expected the return to school to be easy, but I didn’t anticipate problems so soon. Nor did I expect to be asking a question on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions at the end of two long days of trying to book a covid test.

Just four days after returning to school for the first time since mid-March, my middle son was off school with a sore throat, vomiting and diarrhoea. He then developed a temperature of 39°C. These symptoms are associated with norovirus (the ‘winter vomiting bug’) and any number of other viruses, but the temperature also thrust him into covid territory, more so as he began to cough. A study just published in the BMJ warning that gastrointestinal symptoms are common in children infected with covid and should trigger tests for the virus, seemed to confirm the need for a test. Besides, once a child is off school with one or more of the three main coronavirus symptoms a test is the only way forward. The entire family (and support bubble) is confined to barracks for 14 days unless a negative test comes back.

Riding high on the promise of ‘a free NHS test today to check if you have coronavirus’, with the choice of a test site near me or a home test kit, I found my way to the website. The form was simple enough. So far so good. The portal informed me that there were no home test kits available, oh, and no test sites either. Not so good. I called 119 for help and after moving from one automated waiting room to another the line went dead. I tried calling my local GP practice for advice, but again no answer.

Click and refresh

Someone who’d already been through this merry dance advised that the messages on the government portal indicated that it was overloaded, and the trick was to refresh the webpages repeatedly until a test site appeared. How would anyone know to do this? Nevertheless, this is what I did….for two days.

…A never-ending round of click and refresh, click and refresh, click and refresh.

At one point my son’s father decided to try his luck at the testing site a few miles up the road. Located in a large car park, it was deserted except for a couple of cars at the testing station and an army of hi-vis vests. The hi-vis gatekeepers had heard dozens of tales from people trying to book a test and insisted they would lose their jobs if they allowed our son in without an appointment.

…The hoopla continued of click and refresh, click and refresh, click and refresh.

To break up the monotony (and because I was clearly not going to achieve any work) I sent an email to my local Health Watch. A very kindly sounding woman called some hours later. She sympathised and promised to escalate the problem to a higher level.

…More click and refresh, click and refresh, click and refresh.

Suddenly the website cranked into action and a testing site in Heathrow was suggested. This is 90 miles from where we live, but the chance to jump off the merry-go-round seemed in reach. Alas, there were no appointments available.

…Back to click and refresh, click and refresh, click and refresh.  

Then finally, it happened, a test site materialised – about 40 miles away – and an appointment for later in the day. After 13 hours of clicking and refreshing the government portal a test was within grasp.

Capacity issues

I’m not the only parent exasperated by the testing system. Aside from the frustration, it is a blight on our productivity. Almost three-quarters of families have both parents in employment. The country can’t afford to have a testing system that it so difficult to access. Too many testing hurdles will mean households, support and school bubbles and even whole year groups, self-isolating, possibly unnecessarily.

In those monotonous hours glued to the testing portal, I heard Chris Mason trail Any Questions, which was tackling the topic of covid testing. I sent an email to the BBC asking: ‘how is the economy ever to get moving again when getting a covid test is so difficult?’ Later that day a producer called and invited me to ask my question to a panel of MPs.

Mims Davies MP, on behalf of the government, alluded to issues with laboratories and explained away the current problems as ‘a blip’ as people returned to work and schools reopened. On the day I first began my hunt for a test, Ms Davies reported that there was capacity for 370,000 tests. The aim, she said, is to increase to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.

Two days later, figures leaked to The Sunday Times revealed the scale of coronavirus test shortages, as well as the numbers of tests discarded and reliance placed on laboratories abroad (with their own country’s testing requirements to meet).

The ramifications of shortages could be significant if the people we rely upon to treat those seriously unwell with the virus are marooned at home needlessly. A nurse friend told me that her nursing colleagues were using WhatsApp to voice their frustrations in trying to book covid tests for their children. The government portal asks whether the test is for an ‘essential worker’, but the list of such workers is so lengthy (including people working in banking, IT, telecommunications, utilities, postal services and waste disposal sectors) that any meaningful prioritisation is unlikely to happen. It also doesn’t address the priority that should be given to children of essential workers, or to children and young people more generally.

The weekly newsletter issued by the head of one primary school last week alerted parents to a bad cold circulating the school, which begins with a high temperature that subsides after a day and cold symptoms appear. The head teacher advised parents to ‘wait and see’ if cold symptoms develop and not to book a covid test straight away. At the other end of the spectrum, the University of Cambridge is to offer all students living in college accommodation a weekly covid test, even if they show no symptoms.

Testing is just one of several interventions necessary to contain Covid-19, keep people safe and preserve the economy. But it is critical to understanding the spread of the virus and the likely effectiveness of strategies, such as the rule of six introduced in England today.

If testing capacity can’t keep pace with demand – as seems the case – then we need to give greater attention to who receives a test and when, to avoid the service becoming overwhelmed. Local leadership from public health directors, working with schools, GPs and other local groups, is essential to helping us understand the viruses circulating in our local communities and whether there are times when ‘wait and see’ might be the right approach.

My son’s test result came back within 24 hours: negative. Life can resume once more…until next time.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

One thought on “Sally Williams on the challenges in getting a covid test

  1. Dr Rosemary Winteringham

    Well communicated glad the test was negative .What a nightmare for all needing/requiring a Covid-19 test I wish a copy of your blog could be read by all concerned in management of Covid-19 Pandemic. in U.K

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