Schools and businesses will suffer next if widespread shortages of Covid tests continue, after staffing difficulties in hospitals and care homes.
With the government’s website indicating no availability for PCR tests at walk-in services or by home delivery, and pharmacies continuing to struggle to meet demand for lateral flow test (LFT) kits, sector leaders say the shortages will have knock-on effects once the UK emerges from the holiday period.
Transport: train operators struggling to stay on track
Train services have been disrupted by staff shortages caused by Covid. Great Western Railway said: “With rising numbers of staff unavailable to work because of positive Covid tests and having to self-isolate, we have taken steps to maintain service levels across the network. Unfortunately, this includes planned cancellations designed to minimise the impact on as many customers as possible.”
West Midlands Railway said the Omicron variant was having “a significant impact” on its workforce. ScotRail said its services would be disrupted until 28 January because of a shortage of train crew, and services could be cancelled or changed at short notice.
A shortage of staff has led Southern to halt services to and from London Victoria for two weeks. The routes had already been suspended this week due to engineering works, and the staffing problems mean the suspension will continue until 10 January at the earliest.
Schools: test shortages have potential to delay start of term
The Department for Education announced in November that secondary schools in England would need to test all pupils twice on site before they can return to the classroom. Schools have been given flexibility over when to carry out the tests, with many expected to spread out returns over the latter half of next week.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools and colleges are able to order lateral flow device test kits through an online ordering system … These orders are due to be delivered in the week commencing 3 January, and we have not been notified by the government of any issues affecting supply.”
Several headteachers who spoke to the Guardian said they had stockpiled enough kits to test pupils, but feared that shortages of tests for teachers and other essential school staff such as caterers were likely to be a bigger problem.
Care homes: slow results making staffing issues worse
Some care homes have stopped allowing in visitors because of staff shortages, which have been affected by lengthening delays in getting results from walk-in tests. Care home staff are required to have two lateral flow tests and a PCR test each week.
Nadra Ahmed, the chair of the National Care Association, said care homes were reporting delays of four days in getting PCR results, meaning the results were out of date before they arrived. “Agency nurses are not turning up, managers are having to work day shifts and night shifts just to keep the service covered – it has been horrendous. We continue to support families visiting where it is safe but some providers have had to close to visitors because they don’t have the staff to support safe visiting,” Ahmed said.
Vaccinated residents who leave a home temporarily have to be tested for the following 10 days after they return, meaning availability of tests is crucial.
NHS: call for tests to be reserved for staff
NHS staff are required to take twice weekly tests but are not given access to lateral flow tests from their institutions and must seek their own, after a change in guidance over the summer. The surge in demand has hit NHS staff’s access to LFTs, leading to fears of staff shortages.
Unison, one of the main unions representing health workers, said NHS leaders needed to “up the pressure” on the government to reserve tests for NHS staff if stocks were low. Helga Pile, Unison’s deputy head of health, said: “NHS workers are under enough pressure as it is without the additional worry of obtaining tests.”
The call for priority testing for NHS staff has been supported by the Royal College of Nursing, NHS Providers and the British Medical Association, after reports that NHS trusts are reporting high numbers of absences related to Covid.
Hospitality: tests needed for celebrations to go ahead
A lack of tests in England could mean the efforts of restaurants, clubs and pubs to host New Year’s Eve celebrations are in vain, industry representatives said.
With Boris Johnson and ministers telling the public that they needed a test before safely partying on 31 December, the hospitality sector said bookings remained at about half of that seen in a normal year. A lack of test kits could lead to that figure falling further.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, said: “We need to make sure people have access to tests so they can continue to come to work as well as partying.”