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The U.K.’s coronavirus-testing system is overloaded, and the government’s health chief has identified the culprits: people who get tests despite having no COVID-19 symptoms.
“In the last couple of weeks we have seen an increase in demand including…from people who are not eligible for tests, people who don’t have symptoms,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a Wednesday interview with Sky News. “About 25% of people who are coming forward don’t have symptoms, and aren’t eligible.”
These, apparently, are the people responsible for a situation in which others are being asked to travel hundreds of miles to get tests, and many of those trying to apply online—symptomatic or not—get an error message.
A leading figure in the U.K.’s testing regime has also indicated that the problem is not a crunch in testing-center capacity, but rather in the country’s capacity for processing samples.
Hancock cited examples of “inappropriate” testing, such as a school sending an entire year-group for tests, and people getting tests ahead of vacations. Health officials around the world have another name for it: “assurance-testing,” and they think it’s one of our best tools to fight the spread of the virus in the absence of a vaccine.
In the UK, it has been the case since mid-May that anybody experiencing COVID-19 symptoms—a new and persistent cough, high temperature, loss of smell or taste—has been able to get a test to confirm whether they have the virus or not. In processing as many as 200,000 tests per day, the U.K.’s testing rates compare well with those of neighbors such as Germany, where little over 1 million tests are being conducted each week.
The tests are central to the National Health Service’s (NHS) Test and Trace program, which aims to locate and isolate those who came into contact with carriers.
But it has long been known that many carriers of the novel coronavirus display no symptoms, yet remain contagious. In June, Hancock himself presented figures from the Office for National Statistics that showed, in his words, “that around 70-80% of people who test positive don’t have symptoms.”
“That is quite a significant finding and one of the important things about this disease,” he said at the time.
Also in June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Dido Harding, the head of the Test and Trace program, complained that not enough symptomatic people were booking coronavirus tests. “We have excess testing capacity, and we have excess tracing capacity,” Harding said then, while Johnson also said there was “plenty of capacity.”
That situation now appears to have changed. The British press has recently been full of stories about symptomatic people who tried to book tests with the NHS but were told to visit entirely different parts of the country to get them—one as far as 600 miles away.