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GPs inundated with Covid test requests as Hancock blames ‘ineligible’ people

by Emma Wilkinson
9 September 2020

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GPs are having to turn away patients who are coming to them for Covid testing, as NHS Test and Trace continues to struggle to meet demand.

But health secretary Matt Hancock today blamed the problems on the public, saying that Covid testing shortages are being driven by people requesting tests when they don’t need them.

In a series of interviews on Wednesday he said the reason for testing constraints is down to a rise in demand from people who are not eligible.

Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘The problem we’ve got is that in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of people applying for test, getting a test, who are not eligible…

He added that about 25% of people coming forward did not have symptoms, arguing that testing capacity has in fact gone up.

‘What I’m telling you is the reason we have constraint at the moment is not because capacity has gone down, far from it, capacity has gone up. It is that we’ve suddenly seen this rise in demand of people who are not eligible,’ he said.

GPs have told Management in Practice’s sister title, Pulse, they are being inundated with patients trying to get a Covid test as a result of testing issues which has seen some patients being asked to travel hundreds of miles.

On Tuesday, the BMA urged the Government to ‘get a grip’ on Covid testing as Sarah-Jane Marsh, the head of the test and trace programme said the issue was not with capacity at sites but with laboratory processing.

In today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson was pushed by the Labour Party on which explanation was the truth – was it a ‘laboratory problem’ or ‘the public’s fault’ – to which he responded: ‘I of course symptathise with all those facing difficulties getting a test as fast as they want but the demand is at an unprecedented high, particularly because of demand for asymptomatic patients.’

Dr Grant Ingrams, a GP in Leicestershire, said some patients have mentioned being offered an appointment 79 miles away.

‘Grandson was offered appointment in Manchester (110 miles). I’m advising people to ask for test to be sent.’

Dr Richard Davey, a GP at the Larwood Health Partnership in Worksop, said the problem was compounded by NHS 111 inappropriately sending patients to the GP for minor issues.

He has raised the problem with his CCG after hearing from numerous patients who had been told by call handlers they need to speak to their GP within two hours for simple coughs and colds.

‘An example yesterday, a mum of an eight-year-old with dry cough and mild fever overnight phoned 111 for advice on how to get a Covid test. The initial reaction from 111 was take her to A&E, mum challenged this and asked about Covid test and was told there were none available locally so speak to your GP within two hours for further advice.

‘She was apologetic for contacting me because she wasn’t worried about her daughter, just wanted to know whether she should go to school until she’d been confirmed Covid negative. She was [as] frustrated as I by the 111 encounter.’

Dr Jessica Watson, a GP in Bristol and researcher studying use of testing in primary care said it may be an unpopular opinion but it would make sense for GPs to have Covid-19 self testing kits to distribute to patients based on clinical need.

She said: ‘Patients are calling us with coronavirus symptoms daily and many struggle to get tested.

‘They could collect tests from us without having to be seen face to face.’

Speaking to the Health Select Committee on Tuesday Mr Hancock explained there had been operational issues with a couple of contracts but they would be resolved in the next couple of weeks.

But on Wednesday speaking on the Today programme he said: ‘The reason we have constraint at the moment is not because capacity has gone down; far from it, capacity has gone up.

‘It’s that we’ve suddenly seen this rise in demand from people who are not eligible. For instance, I’ve read stories of whole schools being told to go and get a test. That is not what the testing is there for. We need it for people who are symptomatic.’

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health and social care secretary, said: ‘It beggars belief that after weeks of encouraging people to have a test if feeling unwell, ministers are seeking to blame people for simply doing what they were advised.

‘With children returning to school and thousands returning to the office it’s obvious extra testing capacity would be needed. The fact ministers failed to plan is yet more staggering incompetence.’

Figures in recent days have suggested a steep rise in the rate of Covid-19 infections.

A change to the law will mean social gatherings of more than six people indoors or outdoors will be illegal in England from Monday – with some exemptions.

It comes as data released last week revealed that NHS Test and Trace had failed to reach nearly 10,000 people identified as having been in close proximity to a person with confirmed Covid-19 in the week of 20-26 August.

A version of this story first appeared in our sister title Pulse.