London Councils Fear A New Wave Of Covid-19 Is Going Undetected
Bookings for coronavirus tests was reportedly paused in some areas "to help smooth out peaks in demand” (PA)
Concerns have been raised that London’s Covid-19 infection rate could be higher than recorded after testing capacity was redirected to other areas of the UK.
In a letter to directors of public health in London, seen by PoliticsHome, government officials said they were “experiencing exceptionally high demand” for Covid-19 tests.
Writing in late August, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) coordinator admitted they were having to “tightly manage testing capacity” in the capital to “protect the availability of testing in areas of highest risk”.
And they added that it had been necessary to “pause the booking portal for short periods to help smooth out peaks in demand”.
London council leaders have now expressed their concern that this reduction in capacity could have “ramifications” for Covid-19 data and mean estimates of the rate of infection are “unreliable”.
“[Council leaders] were all pretty furious about it. It coincided with an increase in the number of Covid cases which have dramatically, dramatically increased and every indicator demonstrates that,” said Nesil Caliskan, leader of Enfield Council.
She told PoliticsHome: “And the testing indicators are unreliable because, as [the Department of Health] has told us, the capacity had been removed.”
“But every other indicator showed that we are comparable with the North East and the North West, and when you consider that they’ve had additional lockdown measures it indicates just how serious things are.”
She continued: “It’s already a huge, huge spike. It’s already a dramatic increase and the spread of the virus is, if it gets out of control in London it’s very difficult to contain.
“The key to everything is testing. So, not only do they have to put back the testing capacity that they took out, they have to dramatically increase it as well.”
Ms Caliskan also warned that the drop in capacity meant that many care homes in her borough were not able to access tests, adding that the government’s promise of mass testing for staff and residence had “never been realised”.
“To be honest with you, the fact that I’m still talking about only 70% of my care homes having testing in the last month is just outrageous. 50% of our deaths in this borough in the first wave were in care homes,” she said.
Matt Hancock admitted to MPs in mid-September that there were “operational” challenges” with the NHS testing system which led to many people being unable to access tests, or being offer slots at sites far from their homes.
The health secretary said that “demand had risen” and he did not “shirk from decisions about prioritisation” of testing capacity.
But Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney, said there was “no communication” with local authorities about those decisions, adding that council officials were “literally told on the day” that a walk-up centre in the borough would be closing.
“At the very moment people were kind of being asked to do more, come into more contact with each other, was the period when London lost its testing capacity,” Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney, told PoliticsHome.
“And that has huge ramifications I think, for the data that people are receiving and also where we register individual community response.”
He continued: “Confidence that people have had in the whole system is really taking a knock rfom when that testing availability fell back, and it's taking a while to recover.
“And clearly, localised clusters could have gone on untested during that time and I think that that's really problematic.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We use a wide range of data to constantly monitor COVID-19 and map rates of infection, including the robust Imperial and ONS studies which report on a regular basis to provide up-to-date data on infections across the country, including at a regional level.
“In response to the growing number of cases in London, we are increasing testing capacity in the capital, as well as adding new testing sites on a weekly basis. This is in addition to the thousands of tests that already take place every day in the city.
“We have taken decisive action across the country to tackle coronavirus, as demonstrated by the interventions in part of the North West, North East, Birmingham and Leicester and we are monitoring the situation in London closely.”