Sajid Javid has told MPs there will be “no quick fix” to the growing Covid testing crisis, with officials warning that the system will be overwhelmed within days.
On Wednesday, Mr Javid, the Health Secretary, privately admitted that there was a worldwide shortage of tests. Business leaders have warned of an effective New Year lockdown as workers unable to get tested are forced to stay at home.
Boris Johnson was criticised for telling partygoers to get tested even though no PCR tests were available to book anywhere in England for much of Wednesday, while pharmacies are having to wait days for deliveries of lateral flow home testing kits.
On Wednesday, 183,037 Covid cases were reported in the UK – a new daily record – although the figures were skewed upwards by delayed data from Northern Ireland.
The Government’s new policy of allowing people who test positive to stop self-isolating after seven days if they have two negative tests has created a surge in demand for tests – but capacity has not significantly increased.
One government official admitted to The Telegraph that people would soon struggle to access PCR tests “anywhere near” where they live within 48 hours of applying, even though policy currently states that anyone who tests positive for Covid with a home testing kit must immediately book a confirmatory PCR test.
The source said: “PCR test demand is still increasing. It’s at the point now where demand and capacity are about level. But we will soon reach the point where people are struggling to get PCR tests anywhere near them within 48 hours. And what do we do then?”
Dr Mark Fenton, the chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association, said the prospect of a normal return to classes when the new term starts was “hanging by a thread” because of the testing problems.
Doctors have said healthy staff are unable to work because they cannot fulfil the twice-weekly NHS testing requirements.
Hospitals, care homes and businesses already face an uphill battle against staff absences, which will worsen in the weeks ahead if shortages of both PCR and lateral flow tests continue.
Nicola Sturgeon claimed on Wednesday that the UK Government had taken steps “to constrain demand in England” on Tuesday night, suggesting there had already been moves to ration tests.
British firms have been asked to ramp up the production of testing kits despite the Government insisting for weeks that any shortages of tests were caused by distribution, not supply. It is the first time since the early months of the testing programme that ministers have admitted supplies are insufficient.
But industry sources told The Telegraph it would take weeks, not days, to significantly increase production because the manufacturing process is so complicated.
One source said there was “panic” at the Department of Health and Social Care over the gulf between supply and demand as officials scrambled to source swabs, saline tubes and other components of testing kits that are in short supply.
Demand for tests is outstripping supply partly because of the highly transmissible omicron variant and because people visiting relatives over Christmas wanted to do so safely, but also because people who test positive can now leave isolation after a week if they have negative lateral flow tests on days six and seven.
The huge shortage of tests appears to have closed off the option of moving to a five-day isolation period – as many business leaders have demanded – because it would place yet more strain on an already struggling system.
In the US, people who test positive can leave isolation after five days without even having to record a negative test, but ministers insisted no such policy is under consideration in the UK.
During a visit to a vaccination clinic in Milton Keynes on Wednesday, Mr Johnson urged people to get tested before attending New Year’s Eve festivities.
“Everybody should enjoy New Year, but in a cautious and sensible way – take a test, ventilation, think about others but, above all, get a booster,” he said.
On Wednesday Sir Roger Gale, the veteran Tory MP, said Mr Javid had called him after he expressed concerns about the lack of availability of tests in Kent and had told him the problem would take time to sort out.
Sir Roger, the MP for North Thanet, said: “Saj was very honest with me. He said: ‘Look, there isn’t a quick fix.’
“We are now facing the situation where Number 10 is saying ‘go and get tested’ and the Department of Health is saying ‘we haven’t got the tests, we can’t do it’. We have created demand in England which we now can’t satisfy.”
Sir Roger said Mr Javid was “busting a gut” to get supplies “but we’re competing with a global market”.
The Government put out a call to suppliers for an additional 500,000 PCR tests a day two weeks ago, setting Dec 27 as a deadline for applications, one source said.
A Department of Health source said: “Yes, there is a lot of demand that will put pressure on the system – but we have got a lot of supply. We are doing everything we can to make sure people can get the tests they want. If people are not able to get it the first time, if they try again in a couple of hours they should be OK.”
Lord Lansley, who was health secretary from 2012 to 2014, urged ministers to be ready to slash self-isolation times from seven days to five days next week when more data was ready.
He told The Telegraph that “if the risks of omicron are less, then the costs of responding to it should be less too. They could argue responsibly to leave it a fortnight, but they should prepare to go to five days next week”. But he said he was concerned about a shortage of tests needed to allow people to be released early from self-isolation.
Chloe Smith, the work and pensions minister, said it was “sensible to monitor” whether cases increased from cutting self-isolation from seven to five days, but said there were “no current plans” to move to a five-day model.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “The failure to make enough tests available weeks after they became a requirement is a total shambles.”
A spokesman for the UK Health Security Agency, which is in charge of test supplies, said almost eight million test kits would be made available to pharmacies by New Year’s Eve.
“The UK’s testing programme is the biggest in Europe with almost 400 million tests carried out since the start of the pandemic,” he said.
“We are delivering record numbers of lateral flow tests to pharmacies across the country, we have made 100,000 more PCR booking slots available per day since mid December, and we are continuing to rapidly expand capacity.”