“Ladies and gentleman, I have some bad news: there are no more tests today,” the security guard tells a disbelieving queue of people, most with children, who have been waiting in the afternoon heat by a car park in Deptford, south-east London. I am among them, with my daughter Rosa who is coughing like many of the children there. It is the third time we have queued and been turned away in one day.
When I woke yesterday, Rosa had a mild cough. Over breakfast, as we were realising we would have to keep both our children off school and get tested, Priti Patel, the home secretary, came on the radio to tell us the test system was working, except in “extreme cases”.
I spent hours hammering the NHS test booking website, refreshing the page, each time having to go back to fill out the details all over again, each time getting the message: “This service is currently very busy.”
Getting nowhere with the site, we went to nearest “walk-through” centre, which I’d heard you could go to without an appointment. My first trip was at 10am. Hardly anyone was there. After a while, a security guard told me there were not enough tests, but there would be 20 more at 12.30, and we would be able to get tested.
When we came back, the queue was longer. We waited for 45 minutes with no movement. The guard suddenly announced they now had very few tests and had to prioritise key workers. The politeness in the queue evaporated.
People began waving ID cards, and making their case. A reception teacher said she hadn’t been able to teach her class for the past two days because her son was coughing.
“I put food on your shelves,” shouted a woman who worked in a supermarket, “does that not count?” Another woman complained that her son was very ill, and “loads of people getting tested here don’t have symptoms”.
We left with the promise there would be more tests at 4.30.
Our third and final attempt ended the same way, and this time there were even angrier scenes. “We’re disgusted,” said Paula and Simon Perry, who’d been trying to get an appointment for four days. They said their life was on hold: “People won’t self-isolate, if this is how it is. It’s crazy.”
“It’s absolutely bonkers, a shambles,” said Billie, a deputy specialist nurse who had been off work for several days, and whose son had just settled at secondary school, only to have to stop attending.
“We’ve just driven from south-west London, I’m a doctor. I’m booked in” shouted an exasperated woman.
“Still no more tests, I apologise,” replied a supervisor.
That was Lucy, who like many others I met had actually managed to secure an appointment there, an hour-and-a-half drive from where she lived. “To drive all this way with a confirmation and be told there are no tests is completely unacceptable,” she said.
With several families waving their phones with an appointment at him, the supervisor eventually said he would “make a phone call”. He came back out and said those with QR codes could get tested after all. Lucy had already left.
Those people still there got back into a queue. As for me, although it was my local test centre, without a QR code we couldn’t get tested even though earlier in the day people had been able to do so.
That was yesterday. My daughter is still coughing – and today I have woken up realising I have to try all over again.
John Domokos is a senior video producer for the Guardian