Ministers are to spend almost £800m on a new contract to make sure that 200,000 coronavirus home-testing kits can be handled every day, as concern grows over the overall lack of tests available in the UK.
NHS staff have told The Independent they are being forced to stay at home and are unable to work because of delays in getting a test, increasing staff shortages on wards as a result.
Hospital bosses say they are operating in the dark and that the problems with testing capacity will have an impact on NHS services and patients.
Some hospitals are running their own staff testing, while others are referring workers to the public testing system.
Across the country, members of the public have reported being unable to book a test online either at a drive-through test centre or at home. In some cases, patients have been offered test sites hundreds of miles away.
Delays in turning around the results for home-testing kits — where patients swab themselves and send the results to a lab through the post — have been getting worse, with results taking up to three days to send back.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has now published a notice advertising a contract worth up to £785m for a company that will be able to handle the delivery of 200,000 home-testing kits a day.
It is part of a plan by the DHSC to expand testing capacity to 500,000 by the end of next month.
The logistical scale of the service means it is likely that only a larger supplier such as Royal Mail or Amazon, which are already handling home-testing kits, will be handed the deal.
In the contract notice, the DHSC said it was designed to “ensure the continuity and growth of the testing capability” in patients’ homes, adding: “The demand for Covid-19 testing via the home channel is increasing significantly. The ambition of NHS Test and Trace is to ensure that everyone who needs a test in the UK has access to one.”
The companies will need to be able to handle the volume of daily orders as well as “picking, packing and delivery of test kits to individual homes”.
The deal will run for two years but could be extended for six months.
The notice, published last week, said: “The volume is anticipated to be approximately 200,000 test kits a day. For the duration of these contracts, we anticipate suppliers will have to provide their own IT to support the delivery of the services along with the appropriate estate and facilities from which to provide them.”
The availability of testing has been widely criticised, with many areas across the UK unable to access tests, including those areas where cases are highest.
One NHS doctor told The Independent they had struggled to get tested and were forced to stay at home for six days before getting their negative result.
After developing symptoms, they were unable to get a home test or a slot at a drive-in centre, and the next-nearest slot was 200 miles away in Scotland.
The medic eventually secured a home test but said they were told it would take over 72 hours for it to be returned.
They said: “In total, it was six days from symptoms to test result. It’s short-sighted to keep any medical professional off work to await a slow postal service when if it’s negative I can attend work tomorrow. This seems especially brainless when you approach winter-cold season and people will have these symptoms and they may not be Covid-19-related.
“We don’t have medical students to fill in the gaps any more, so how would we cope losing 30-40 per cent of staffing to colds and flu because of poor Covid-19 testing?”
NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said the lack of tests was starting to impact services and increasing the number of staff forced to stay home and isolate.
Its chief executive, Chris Hopson, said: “It’s clear that there are current capacity problems with the testing regime. Trust leaders from Bristol, Leeds and London have all raised concerns over the weekend about the lack of testing availability leading to greater levels of staff absence.
“The problem is that NHS trusts are working in the dark — they don’t know why these shortages are occurring, how long they are likely to last, how geographically widespread they are likely to be, and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests.
“They need to know all this information so that they can plan accordingly. For example, trusts need to know if they should try to create or re-establish their own testing facilities as quickly as possible.”
He also raised fears that some patients who needed tests before going to hospital for treatment were unable to get them.
“We’re aware of a small number of examples of patients being unable to get such tests, which cuts across trusts’ ability to restore services in the way they have been asked to do.”
He added: “It’s disappointing that no detailed information on the current problems has been shared. Given the importance of an effective testing regime — not just for staff, but also for NHS patients and the general public — trust leaders want the government to be honest and open about what is going on here.”
The Welsh health minister, Vaughan Gething, said problems with the UK Lighthouse Laboratories were "plainly not acceptable".
In a press conference, he said the issues were likely to continue for a number of weeks.
"It's a matter to be resolved as urgently as possible, but I don't think that it's going to be resolved for a number of weeks, and that follows a conversation that all four health ministers had at the end of last week,” he said.
In the latest test results, Public Health England said there had been a further 2,621 lab-confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the UK. Overall, 371,125 cases have now been confirmed.
A further nine people had died within 28 days of testing positive for the coronavirus, bringing the UK death toll to 41,637.
There have now been more than 57,400 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.