Only around 200 of the 2,000 daily testing sites for key workers promised by Boris Johnson to beat the “pingdemic” are in operation and hundreds of them will not be in place until the end of next month - two weeks after the 16 August date when the requirement to self-isolate will be lifted.
The delay was blasted by business figures, with one haulage industry leader telling The Independent it made the scheme “entirely pointless” and accusing the government of “running the clock down” to 16 August rather than helping truckers get back to work.
Facilities to allow key workers to carry on working after being identified as contacts of Covid-positive people were first announced last week, following warnings that the economy risked grinding to a halt with as many as 600,000 employees a week being told to stay home.
But companies have complained that they are unable to register workers or access testing sites, with the Road Haulage Association on Tuesday branding the scheme a “shambles”.
Now official Department of Health figures show that little more than one-tenth of the 2,000 sites planned across the UK are up and running.
The figures reveal that 800 sites have been identified for use and are being prepared for mobilisation as fast as possible, with something over 200 of them currently conducting testing.
But a further 1,200 are yet to be “onboarded” in the first step towards preparation for operations, and the department does not expect the full complement of 2,000 sites to be in operation until the end of August.
By that time, the “pingdemic” is expected to be over anyway, as there will no longer be any requirement from 16 August for fully-vaccinated people - currently more than 70 per cent of the adult population - to self-isolate if identified as a contact by NHS Test and Trace or pinged by the smartphone. Only unvaccinated workers, those with one jab or those waiting to complete two weeks after their second jab, will need to use the sites.
RHA managing director for policy and public affairs Rod McKenzie told The Independent: “This follows the pattern of the government’s actions ever since these measures were announced - confusing, badly thought-through and, as many of our members are saying, entirely pointless.”
The haulage industry has been lobbying for double-jabbed and negative-testing drivers to be automatically exempted from self-isolation instructions in order to keep supermarket shelves full and factories supplied, he said. The industry regarded the government’s solution to the pingdemic as “unworkable” from the start.
“Now it seems that what they have been doing is running down the clock to 16 August in the hope of being seen to do something, even if it’s completely impractical,” he said.
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “The government needs to get a grip so we can get our lives back to normal. Businesses are on their knees as staff self-isolate and millions of kids have missed school due to Covid.
“Our priority needs to be making sure schools can return in September and businesses can operate safely. The government’s inability to get more testing centres up and running puts that in jeopardy.”
Daily testing was first announced on 19 July, after a week in which half a million people were off work self-isolating as contacts, with the scheme initially open only to critical workers including railway signallers and air traffic controllers who were fully vaccinated.
Three days later on Thursday last week, amid growing clamour from businesses for employees to be allowed to go to work, the scheme was extended to an estimated 10,000 food industry workers, with no requirement to be inoculated and the number of planned sites increased to 800.
Then on Monday, another expansion was announced, with a further 1,200 testing sites promised at workplaces around the country in sectors such as prisons, waste collection and defence.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said at the time that daily contact testing would play a “vital role” in helping minimise the potential for disruption caused by rising cases of Covid-19 while keeping staff protected.
Until now, however, there has been no official timetable for how soon all 2,000 would be in operation, with Downing Street saying only that they believed 500 would be up and running by the end of this week.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our top priority has always been protecting the public. The vaccine programme and our robust testing regime are combining to minimise the risk of disruption to key industries and to reduce infections.
“Workplaces are approved to take part in the Workplace Daily Contact Testing scheme on the basis they are able to provide on-site testing services safely and effectively and meet reporting requirements.”
A scientist advising the government on Covid-19 testing has said he would have moved towards a test and release system from self-isolation from January this year.
Immunologist Professor Sir John Bell, of the University of Oxford, said he had been advising the government since January to release Covid contacts from self-isolation if they test negative for the disease, rather than requiring 10 days’ self-isolation.
Prof Bell told BBC Radio 4’s World At One : “We knew by January we had a number of tests that were highly effective at this and that they should have been more widely used in this space.
“If I was the one making the decisions, I would have thought to move much more aggressively from January to make that happen but obviously there is a complex set of issues that lead to political decision making and I am not involved in any of that.”