Current testing shortages put NHS service recovery at risk

Leaders of NHS trusts and bodies across the country have expressed concerns over the impact of current testing shortages on NHS service recovery and winter preparation efforts.

NHS staff absences have started to increase notably in parts of the country as staff and their family members struggle to access coronavirus tests, forcing them to remain in self-isolation in the absence of a test for themselves or their close family.

These delays then take valuable NHS staff away from their frontline roles for longer periods.

As the number of Covid-19 cases begins to rise again and the NHS is faced with renewed pressure on its services – as well as preparing for its usual winter pressures – growing staff absences add an additional level of strain on the services provided and efforts to recover previously halted services and planned activity.

Trust leaders have expressed particular frustration around the lack of “appropriate detailed operational information” on the shortages – including how big they are and how long they’re predicted to last.

This lack of clarity, they argue, is preventing them from effectively managing the issue.

NHS Providers Chief Executive Chris Hopson, highlighting the concerns of the trust leaders, said: “It’s clear that there are current capacity problems with the testing regime. Trust leaders from Bristol, Leeds and London have all raised concerns over the weekend about the lack of testing availability leading to greater levels of staff absence.

“It’s not just access for tests for staff members themselves, it’s also access for their family members as NHS workers have to self-isolate if their family members are unable to confirm if they have Covid-19 or not.

“The problem is that NHS trusts are working in the dark – they don’t know why these shortages are occurring, how long they are likely to last, how geographically widespread they are likely to be and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests. They need to know all this information so that they can plan accordingly. For example, trusts need to know if they should try to create or re-establish their own testing facilities as quickly as possible.

“Trusts also have a concern about the impact of testing shortages on patients who need to be tested prior to planned hospital treatment. We’re aware of a small number of examples of patients being unable to get such tests, which cuts across trusts’ ability to restore services in the way they have been asked to do. We are concerned, for example, that patients waiting for hospital treatment can no longer highlight this fact when applying online to access a test. We need to prioritise tests for healthcare workers and their families and patients coming in for treatment, many of whom have already waited longer than normal.

“Our recent survey showed how concerned trust leaders were about the impact of inadequate testing on their ability to restore services and it’s disappointing that no detailed information on the current problems has been shared. Given the Importance of an effective testing regime, not just for staff, but also for NHS patients and the general public, trust leaders want the Government to be honest and open about what is going on here.

“Trust leaders are frustrated that, throughout the pandemic, the government has always seemed more concerned with managing the political implications of operational problems rather than being open and honest about them - shortages of PPE and testing reagents earlier in the pandemic being good examples. The Government response has often been to rely on a random, impressive sounding, overall statistic - the number of tests performed or PPE items delivered - or to set out a bold future ambition - a world class test and trace service by June, or a moonshot testing regime at some point next year. Both approaches ignore the operational problem at hand. Neither helps the frontline organisations that actually have to deal with the problem.

“The NHS frontline, and the public, need honesty so they can plan and look for their own solutions to the problem in order to provide patients with the care they need.”

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