Boris Johnson has been accused of presiding over a “total shambles” as millions of people struggle to access Covid tests after a huge surge in demand, leaving essential staff unable to work.
The prime minister had urged people to take precautionary rapid Covid tests before heading out for New Year’s Eve, while the Omicron wave has pushed up demand for both lateral flows and PCRs. There were a record 183,000 positive cases confirmed on Wednesday, although this data included some delayed results.
With the huge increase in cases, the system was dogged by shortages and there were reports that key workers, including nurses and firefighters, were unable to access tests to allow them to do their jobs.
As medical staff experienced delays in PCR test results and problems accessing rapid tests, NHS Providers called on No 10 to consider reserving some tests for health workers. Some Tory MPs were also demanding answers from government ministers about whether there should be a priority ranking for who should get tests first.
Members of the public also complained that tests were hard to find, as pharmacies around England displayed signs that they had run out of lateral flow test (LFT) kits amid “patchy” deliveries and high demand.
For the second day in a row the government’s websites showed at times that walk-in PCR tests were unavailable in parts of the country, such as Hartlepool, and in short supply in others, while by mid-afternoon ordering home deliveries of LFTs had again been halted.
The overwhelming demand for tests in England follows record levels of infection since the arrival of the Omicron variant.
The UK Health and Security Agency acknowledged there was unprecedented demand for tests and urged people not to order more than they needed. But the organisation said another eight million tests were being made available to pharmacists before New Year’s Eve celebrations begin.
Pharmacists said demand has been driven by the government allowing vaccinated people out of self-isolation if they show repeated negative LFT results after a week, and among those stocking up on kits before New Year’s Eve events.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said Johnson’s plea for people to take lateral flows when there were shortages showed “spectacular incompetence”.
“Congratulations to Boris Johnson who has managed to appear on television today urging people to get tested when people are struggling to access them,” he said.
“People are trying to do the right thing, follow the government’s own advice, and test themselves regularly, but are prevented by the Conservative government’s incompetence.”
Daisy Cooper, Lib Dem health spokesperson, added that it was “now or never to get Covid tests to frontline workers”.
“If the government doesn’t get its act together today then vaccine centres could soon grind to a halt, and patient safety could be at risk from further NHS and care staff absences,” she said.
Johnson’s comments on testing have been repeated by other ministers, including the health secretary, Sajid Javid, and health minister Gillian Keegan, who advised new year’s revellers: “Do be cautious, take a lateral flow test before you go out.”
There were particular concerns about a lack of tests affecting staff absences in the NHS. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said it was “vital that NHS staff get prompt access to the tests they need to ensure they can return to work as quickly as possible” and suggested “looking at whether we need to reserve dedicated testing capacity for NHS staff for a period”.
Dr David Wrigley, the British Medical Association’s deputy council chair, said: “In order to keep the NHS working, it is imperative that staff must be able to regularly test for Covid 19 and so supplies of lateral flow tests for key workers should be prioritised.”
New London fire brigade data shows that a third of fire engines in London have been unavailable after more than 700 firefighters either tested positive or were having to self-isolate earlier this week.
Staff shortages meant a 64-metre ladder appliance, bought after the Grenfell Tower disaster, was unavailable for much of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, while more than 15% of operational firefighters were off work because of Covid on 27 December.
The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, which represents NHS community pharmacies in England, said deliveries of LFT kits to pharmacies had restarted on Wednesday after four days of no service. But many of those that did receive them reported quickly exhausting their supplies.
Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said: “Pharmacies are reporting that every five minutes approximately somebody comes in to the pharmacy asking for a test.
“But, unfortunately, because of the issues around supply being patchy and inconsistent, it means that those who come for the test don’t always get it, which is very stressful not just for the pharmacy team but for the patient.”
In Devizes, Devon, the branch of Boots had exhausted its supply of tests by 11am, with two other pharmacies in the town saying they had no kits at all.
But Maria Caulfield, the government’s junior health minister, insisted there were “plenty of tests”, in a post to a WhatsApp group of Tory MPs. Caulfield said the “constant speculation that we are running out of tests is just fuelling demand”, and urged colleagues to tell constituents they should “keep trying” to book tests online.
Javid is also understood to be preparing a memo for MPs confirming supplies of LFTs and PCRs were safe.
However, their assurances were undermined by Tory MPs reporting first-hand problems ordering tests. Roger Gale, the MP for North Thanet, tweeted that “Kent appears to be in Lateral Flow and PCR Test gridlock”.
Gale later said he had spoken with Javid and been told “there is a world shortage of Lateral Flow & PCR test supplies, but we are buying all that’s available”.
A former minister called the situation a “shitshow” and added Javid’s letter “probably won’t immediately match reality”. A second Tory MP said availability of tests “definitely seems to be an issue”, and a third said a relative who was an essential worker had been unable to order one.
The UK Health Security Agency said tests were temporarily unavailable on the government website at points throughout the day due to “exceptionally high demand” and urged people not to order more tests before using the ones they have.
A spokesperson said: “During periods of exceptional demand there may be temporary pauses in ordering or receiving tests, to ensure we manage distribution across the system.”