The Best of British Incompetence

COVID-19 Testing in the UK

I never expected to be the first person I knew to have a test for COVID-19, so it was a surprise when I received an email that explained I was being offered one.

I’m not a key worker in any sense, and I’d heard repeatedly in the media that tests were in such demand that they were only being offered to people working on the frontlines of the health crisis, contrasting with mass testing for everyone, as offered in other countries like Germany and South Korea.

Nevertheless, the email stated that the UK Department of Health was inviting me to have a PCR swab test to confirm whether I was currently positive or negative for the virus. It went on to explain that I had been selected as I was using the COVID Symptom Study app, developed by the public research university King’s College in London, and health science company ZOE, and I had reported a particular combination of symptoms they were interested in; getting tested would help the researchers develop a better understanding of which symptoms are most related to COVID-19 infection.

The email finished by providing some key information, including that testing could occur either via a home testing kit, or by visiting a regional test site (RTS), and that I was encouraged to book a test as soon as possible by clicking a link in the email which passed me through to the government testing website.

I clicked the link, and started the process. The first thing I discovered was that my preferred option of a home test kit was not possible, because there were “none available”.

To be fair, the email had warned that demand for these tests is high, and that capacity for them is released at the start of each day. So, I tried again at just past midnight, and then again at 4.00am, and then again at 7.00am, and then again at 9.00am, but every time the home test kit option showed as “not available”.

The email had advised that if I was unable to get a home test kit then I should instead select to visit a Regional Testing Site, so I did this, noting that this is only available to people who can get there in a car or other private vehicle — nobody is allowed to attend on foot or normal public transport. As I am fortunate enough to have a car, this would not be a problem for me, but for anyone without a car, they seem to be out of luck at the moment.

So I booked to visit a Regional Testing Site, and the onscreen confirmation that I was advised to print out stated that during my visit a medical professional would take a swab sample from my nose and throat. As a friend pointed out, this was probably a better option than a home test kit anyway — a medical professional would be trained and know what they were doing, and therefore able to perform the swab with greater efficacy compared to me, a member of the general public with zero clinical expertise.

I also noted that the onscreen confirmation contained at least one fairly obvious spelling mistake which I found surprising, given that the test booking system is meant to have been online for weeks now:

The next day I attended at the scheduled time, ensuring I arrived as close to my scheduled slot as possible because, the advance information had explained, it was important to keep things flowing and people who arrived early or late would cause problems.

As I approached the site I noted that there was very little signage to direct visitors where they should be going, and I also noticed that the roads were practically empty which was strange because from what I had heard reported by government and in the media I had anticipated thousands of people getting their tests done — but the roads were extremely quiet. There was almost nobody around.

On arrival at the testing site there were two entry lanes available and no queue — I was first in line. There were multiple signs around saying “KEEP WINDOWS CLOSED” which of course made sense, and I had anticipated this anyway.

A man in a yellow Hi-Vis jacket and face mask approached my car and knocked on the window and pointed through it. I picked up my printed confirmation which showed the QR code and my appointment booking, and placed it to my window for him to view or scan. The man shook his head, and pointed again through the window, and I was unsure of what he was telling me to do; I thought he might be pointing at my ignition, so I turned the engine off in case this would help communication. The man shook his head again.

I said loudly “What are you asking me to do?”.

The man responded “Wind down your window”.

Wait, what?

I mean seriously, what? There are at least three signs nearby saying “KEEP WINDOWS CLOSED” but this man was asking me to wind down my window — and in typical, polite, compliant, English fashion, I am frustrated to admit that I did as I was told, and I wound down my window a few inches.

The man leaned down, placing his head near to the gap made by the now partially opened window, and had a close look into my car.

“You’ve got no dashcams have you?” he queried. “No photos or videos are allowed to be taken onsite” he cautioned.

I was left wondering why he had begun by instructing me to open my window, when the signage said it should stay closed; then contravened social distancing by moving to within inches of my face; and then instructed me that taking photos or video was forbidden.

After having explained that I didn’t have a dashcam, the man went on to tell me that the tests are all “self-administered”. Contrary to the information provided ahead of time, there was to be no medical professional who would do the swabbing — I would have to do this myself. No explanation was given. I was told to drive forwards, and to follow directions from other marshals.

So I drove forward to the next checkpoint, at which once again I was instructed to wind down my window by a man in Hi-Vis and a paper surgical mask. He asked me whether I had anything with which to sanitise my hands — I replied that no I hadn’t. I had followed all the guidance provided ahead of time, and ensured I’d brought my test site pass and my photo ID, but nothing had said to bring hand-sanitizer, which in any case has been hard to obtain for weeks.

The man retreated into a cabin and brought out some gloves, indicating I should wear these when administering my own test. He gave me a testing kit in a plastic bag and went on to deliver a complex two-minute monologue as he did his best to explain the numerous steps of the testing procedure that I should follow. He finished by handing me a nine-page double-sided document to refer to, that was unhelpfully stapled in the wrong corner, making reading the pages in a logical manner harder than necessary.

He then directed me to continue driving along the designated route, with various marshals telling me to turn in the only possible directions that were available, until I came to a playing field sized rectangle, containing thousands of cones, but absolutely no directions, and absolutely no marshals to be seen.

Anywhere.

Unsure of where to go, and with no other vehicles or people nearby, I used my judgment and decided to head for a cluster of four cars I could see in the far distance. As I arrived nearby I anticipated a marshal would appear to direct me where I should go, but none were anywhere to be seen, so I pulled up parallel to the other cars, facing forward, where I spotted a group of four marshals sitting on deck chairs, all staring intently at mobile phones but otherwise not doing anything much.

I parked and turned off my engine, and looked at the nine-page document, which started by telling me to read through the pages to make sure I understood each step. This document weighs in at over 2000 words, contains nine boxes marked by being in red as IMPORTANT, contains up to 26 separate steps (and that is counting charitably) and refers to seven different pieces of testing kit. I am fortunate to have received a good education, and I graduated from The University of Oxford, but I found the steps challenging to follow, so I suspect many others will find the process rather challenging too.

The document also mentioned that I should use hand sanitiser, a tissue, and an antiseptic wipe, none of which were actually supplied as part of the kit, or mentioned ahead of time as being things I should bring.

While I read the document and then completed the test, which took me around 20 minutes, I kept an eye on events outside the car. Throughout there were never more than six or seven cars present, with one arriving and one departing approximately every three minutes. The four marshals sat on their plastic chairs, glued to their phones, for almost the entire time, and the remainder of the vast area was desolately empty. I had anticipated queues and a hive of activity as people attended to be tested, but the place was barren.

Having completed my test to the best of my ability, I started my car and drove to the final station to hand it all in, where a patient person in Hi-Vis pointed out a few mistakes I had made — such as forgetting to insert Tube E into Bag C, before inserting them both into Bag G. Having corrected these errors, he lifted up what looked very much like a trash bin, into which he asked me to drop my sealed test.

And that was it — I drove off, somewhat bewildered by what I had just experienced. Despite all the claims being made about “ramped-up testing” of 100,000 people a day, it remains very difficult to get a test, yet the testing site I visited was largely empty. At the rate I witnessed, at an RTS in the well populated urban area of Crawley in the south-east of England, I calculate they would be achieving only around 500 tests per day, and there are less than 50 of these sites nationwide, which mean in total they may only be doing less than 25,000 tests per day. The home test kits aren’t available. So while the RTS that I visited seems able to accept far more visitors, it seems likely that the constraint is the availability of the test kits themselves.

The government claimed in early April that they would test 100,000 people per day by the end of the month. They subsequently changed the wording on this, saying that they would process 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month, and they then trumpeted they had achieved their target, even though actually many of these “processed tests” were simply tests that had been posted out to people, as opposed to tests that have been completed — in fact, only 73,191 people had actually been tested on the best day in April, despite the government’s claims which were then repeated by a largely loyal media.

Meanwhile, the reality of the testing seems to be entirely at odds with what is promised. Home Test Kits are said to be available, but they are not. Regional Testing Sites are said to offer swab tests completed by medical professionals, but they appear to be staffed instead by low paid workers with no medical training, who don’t work for the NHS but instead are employed by a private contractor that the government has outsourced this work to, who don’t follow guidelines on social distancing or the signage at the sites, but who have been carefully briefed to strictly ensure visitors don’t communicate their experience to others by taking photos or video.

I find all this extremely troubling.

Our government has been making promises on a daily basis that are often at best only half-truths and at worst barefaced lies that are easily disprovable, while trying to prevent the true story from being told.

But hey, on this Victory in Europe weekend, instead of celebrating the bravery of earlier generations by using our freedoms to confront and deal with the truth of what is happening, we are instead encouraged to behave patriotically, which apparently means we should look away from the truth, and be quiet, and eat cake while waving a Union Jack flag.

Epilogue: THANK YOU to all of the people in the NHS. Similarly, thank you to all key workers in schools, and all our public services, and essential workers in supermarkets and elsewhere for your bravery & commitment to keeping the country running.

I’ve worked as a teacher in the UK for over a decade; I am also interested in science, tech, the arts and politics.

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