From Shropshire to Aberdeen: How coronavirus testing face is trying the nation's patience

You couldn’t make it up. Some centres appear empty but are booked up. And drop-in sites are now appointment-only.

Cars entering the testing site near Ironbridge yesterday that has experienced issues
Cars entering the testing site near Ironbridge yesterday that has experienced issues

Got symptoms? Get a test. That’s the simple message for anyone who fears they may be experiencing symptoms of coronavirus.

But people across the region are finding the process of getting tested is anything but straightforward.

With pupils returning to schools, people to workplaces and concerns about keeping cases down in Telford, Shropshire and Mid Wales, the testing system – which the Government had insisted would be “world beating” by now – is leading to frustration and worry in equal measure.

It is a situation replicated across the West Midlands, where there is greater concern over rocketing case numbers, school closures and the implementation of local lockdowns.

Testing is by appointment-only

While outwardly the permanent test site in Ironbridge may seem quiet, there have been continued reports of people struggling to secure spaces for tests with the government website either not working, or directing them out of the county.

Over the past 10 days there have been repeated stories of people from the county directed to far flung parts of the UK in search of a definitive answer as to whether they have the virus or not.

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Lucy Allan, Telford’s MP, called on the Health Secretary to investigate after a ‘glitch’ saw cars backed up outside the the Ironbridge site, with people from Cornwall and Merseyside sent to the county in search of an appointment.

Perversely Shropshire residents were finding themselves directed out of the county to Oldham, Aberdeen and Mid Wales.

The situation has been repeated in Newtown with people travelling from Liverpool, Telford and Lichfield for tests – only to find a hand written cardboard sign telling them they had wasted their journey and the centre was closed.

A handwritten sign was put up in Newtown

The demand for tests has seen a huge increase in recent days – largely driven by the return of pupils to schools.

Where tests are not available people are then being forced outside their area in an attempt to get the diagnosis – putting further strain on other centres.

In the West Midlands local walk-in centres have been turning people away, with some switching to an appointment-only system at a moment’s notice due to high demand.

The problems have been exacerbated by a lack of laboratory space to process tests, leading to further reduced capacity at centres and delays for people awaiting their results.

It paints a very different picture from Boris Johnson’s claim in this week’s PMQs that the system is “continuing to improve”.

Telford & Wrekin Council wants to tackle the problem by setting up walk-in centres in the town, and has written to the Department of Health and the NHS to offer eight sites that could be used.

Mum Rachel left frustrated and anxious

The reality of the situation is that the issues are leaving people like Shifnal mum Rachel Roland, 55, frustrated and anxious at the difficulties in getting a test for her 12-year-old daughter. After developing symptoms she was advised by the GP to do the sensible thing and get tested.

With no appointments available in the county Rachel believed she had secured a time slot at Edgbaston, only to arrive and be turned away when she was told it had not been registered. Her difficulties have gone on since Monday, and despite the website saying tests were available in Bolton, she was not able to book any slots as they all appeared taken up when you proceed through the questions.

The testing centre at Ironbridge Park & Ride

She said: “50 hours on and I still can’t get a test.”

“My worry is we will have missed the window when the test is worth it.”

Telford & Wrekin Council leader Shaun Davies said: “Sadly many residents and their children are still raising these problems are still unable to book tests locally, with people being sent on 180 mile trips to the north west and Wales instead of to their local testing centre.”

'Wolverhampton? Take the test in Aberdeen please'

It is a situation mirrored in the West Midlands.

Wolverhampton councillor Milkinder Jaspal said he was told by the NHS to travel to Aberdeen for a test after experiencing Covid-19 symptoms.

“I was feeling very unwell and thought the sensible thing to do was to take a test,” he said. “They told me to go to Aberdeen – that’s 412 miles away and an eight-hour journey by car. How on earth are you supposed to go all that way when you are ill? Plus you would need to stop for a break and could possibly spread the virus while doing so.

“This is happening a lot and people are not taking the test, which is hardly a good thing when it comes to controlling this.”

Demand for tests has shot up over the past two weeks in parts of the region as cases continue to rise, meaning that centres that had plenty of capacity are now under pressure.

The test centre on Cannock Chase Council car park is one such example. The site was initially set up as a walk-in centre but has since moved to appointment only due to high demand and because of difficulties in getting results processed.

Rise in pupils being sent home is fuelling demand

However, people who have not booked online are still turning up in the hope of getting a test, only to be turned away and told to make an appointment.

Heath Hayes parish councillor Paul Dadge, chair of the Chase Coronavirus Support Network, said: “The staff here are working diligently but at the moment there is a lot of strain on the network. We are trying to update people with what is going on, which is increasingly difficult because the situation changes by the hour. When it first opened it was underused. Now it is over capacity.”

Mr Dadge said he had spoken with people with symptoms who had been unable to get local appointments, while a rise in the number of pupils being sent home from schools and told to get tests was piling extra pressure on the system.

The Showell Road walk-in centre in Wolverhampton has been open since before the lockdown, offering tests without the requirement of an advance booking. However, the site started turning away people earlier this week due to issues with capacity.

Self test kits

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said testing capacity was “the highest it has ever been”, but warned the system was being bogged down by “a significant demand for tests including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible”.

“New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for those who need them and we are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, and prioritising at-risk groups,” the spokesman added.

“Our laboratories are processing more than a million tests a week and we recently announced new facilities and technology to process results even faster. If you do not have symptoms and are not eligible to get a test you can continue to protect yourself if you wash your hands, wear a face covering and follow social distancing rules.”

Ministers have sought to defend testing, with the PM accusing critics of being “too negative” and insisting that the average distance that people have to travel for a test is coming down.

One such critic is John Spellar, the Labour MP for Warley, who said the Government’s incompetence was taking a heavy toll on people across the region.

“People are trying to get tests for their kids, they need tests for work,” he said. “It is hugely frustrating and the people of the Black Country deserve a much more efficient system.

“The Government has had long enough to sort it out, but they are falling down on the job.”

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