Covid-19 testing in Oldham has been branded a ‘shambles’ over the weekend after people with symptoms were turned away from its three walk-up centres.
The borough currently has one of the highest infection rates in the country, but the government appeared to have rationed tests yesterday without telling the town hall.
It is understood Oldham council has now written to the Department for Health and Social Care demanding answers.
Deputy council Arooj Shah said the government had ‘completely undermined’ the public health department’s strategy to cut infections, while the council’s lead member for health said the local system felt ‘powerless’ in the face of the chaos.
One of the borough’s MPs has called the entire system ‘a confused mess’, warning online booking has now ‘fallen over’.
Testing stations at Peel Street in Chadderton, the Honeywell Centre in Hathershaw and Southgate Street in the town centre are all supposed to accept people without appointment as part of the local authority’s efforts to manage high case numbers.
However at the weekend people were turned away from all three because they had not booked, even though in many cases they had tried, but had been unable to do so.
Some were parents taking children with symptoms ahead of the school week resuming today.
Oldham’s deputy council leader Arooj Shah tweeted on Sunday night that the day’s testing had been a ‘shambles’.
“I refuse to let the council take the flack for a national failure,” she wrote.
“Residents couldn’t book online or through 119 and were being turned away from our walk-up sites. Clearly appears national [government] changed guidelines without informing us.”
Accusing the government of not having a ‘grip’ on the situation, she said she had spent the day speaking to concerned residents.
“A mother who got turned away from one site went to another to be turned away again, terrified and rightly concerned for the welfare of her child.”
The council’s cabinet member for adult social care and health, Zahid Chauhan, also a GP in the borough, tweeted that he felt ‘powerless’.
“Without sufficient testing capacity, we can’t control Covid,” he wrote, adding that ‘clear national guidance’ and resource was needed.
Oldham West and Royton MP Jim McMahon was also contacted by constituents who had experienced similar problems on Sunday, including parents.
“This whole system is a confused mess,” he said.
“The online booking system has fallen over, having directed people all over the country for tests – now it’s given up even doing that.
“Now we see parents with children displaying symptoms being turned away at the door.
“The government is woefully under-prepared for what is coming our way.”
Oldham has been in the top ten boroughs nationally for Covid cases for weeks, having spiked in July and August. After testing was ramped up and new social mixing restrictions were introduced, numbers then began to fall, but over the past week they have begun to spike again.
Part of the council’s strategy involves offering tests to people without appointment, including going door-to-door and providing them to those without symptoms.
However the borough’s experience over the weekend mirrors other parts of the UK, including Greater Manchester.
In Bolton, which has by far the highest Covid infection rate in the country, on Saturday a car park full of symptomatic people were left waiting for a mobile testing unit that didn’t turn up.
Saturday also saw Rhondda Cynon Taf council in South Wales respond with fury after a mobile testing unit had its capacity cut to 60 tests a day – from 400-500 – by the UK government, leaving the local authority and health board to try and add their own capacity.
The Welsh government told the BBC it had scrambled to increase testing capacity after being left in a ‘deeply unsatisfactory position’ on Friday night, while council leader Andrew Morgan said Whitehall had made a unilateral decision to limit tests there.
“It’s a complete farce,” he told Wales Online over the weekend. “I think the system is close to collapse.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it had informed local authorities last week that tests would not be available at regional or mobile testing sites ‘where the capacity has been reached for that day’, although it did not specify what that capacity was in Oldham. Where that capacity was full, it said, people would be told to make appointments.
Test sites ‘with higher prevalence’ were being prioritised, it said, with ‘higher volumes of testing’ made available.
It said the government was working towards a 500,000-a-day national test capacity by the end of October, including 500 extra testing sites across the country. The UK has the ‘biggest testing system per head of population of all the major countries in Europe’, it added.
A spokesman said: “NHS Test and Trace is completely free, it’s working and our capacity is the highest it has ever been with over a million tests being processed a week.
“We are seeing a significant demand for tests and so those attending a regional test site or mobile test site without an appointment may be advised to book before they are able to receive a test.
“If you have symptoms we urge you to visit the NHS website or call 119 and get a test.”