Fears over Covid-19 test shortage impacting care homes

Council leader writes to health minister calling for more tests to be made available, reports James Cracknell

A Covid-19 lateral flow test kit (also known as rapid antigen test)
A Covid-19 lateral flow self-test kit (also known as a rapid antigen test)

A shortage of lateral flow tests poses “significant risk” to vulnerable people in Enfield, the council leader has warned.

Nesil Caliskan yesterday wrote to the vaccines and public health minister, Maggie Throup, to demand the government “take immediate action to tackle” the issue of Covid-19 testing availability, as the UK faces a record number of cases.

Demand for lateral flow tests – the quickest and most convenient way to find out if you have contracted Covid-19 – has surged over the festive period as the omicron variant has led to a new spike in the pandemic.

But despite the government increasing the supply of tests, which can usually be picked up for free from local pharmacies, many people have reported being turned away as stocks have run out. Care homes can obtain tests directly from the government, but some are also said to be “experiencing difficulties” with supply.

In her letter to the minister, Cllr Caliskan wrote: “In the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, sadly 50% of Covid deaths in our borough were in care homes.

“We know that PPE [personal protective equipment] and access to regular testing was an issue, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. That is why, alongside providers, Enfield Council fought for better testing and PPE for patients and care staff. We don’t want testing and PPE to be an issue again.

“We have advised all of our social care providers that all staff working closely with vulnerable residents both in the community and in care homes need to complete a daily LFD [lateral flow device] test and weekly PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests.

“Regular contact with all of our providers tells us that they are experiencing difficulties in getting a sufficient supply through the usual route from the Department for Health and Social Care. We know that community pharmacies are also struggling with supply issues now which means that members of the public are not getting a regular supply of LFD testing kits.

“We have advised providers to contact the council for LFD tests in the event that they can’t get the supply they need through the normal channels and our council community equipment service is holding a contingency supply to ensure that all of our front line services, including care homes and libraries, continue to get the supply of test kits they need for staff and residents.

“Supplies are being delivered to us for now, but not at the level ordered, which means that the demand on our stock continues to exceed the available supply. Current stock levels will last around three weeks and we are doing our best to make sure we maintain those levels as a minimum.

“Should the level of supply held in stock fall below that minimum level and with the number of Covid-19 positive cases prevalent at this point in time set to continue, then there will be a significant risk to both services and to vulnerable residents due to an inability to keep up with the required level of testing and prevent infection.

“We are doing everything we can to maintain our supply and prioritising distribution for our most vulnerable and front-line staff, but I urge government to take action now to ensure that the supply of LFD tests can keep up with demand.”

Last year the Dispatch revealed that some Enfield care homes had been denied tests at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, even after then-health secretary Matt Hancock had pledged that all symptomatic care home patients would be tested.

This week the current health secretary, Sajid Javid, warned MPs he may need to “constrain” the Covid-19 testing system over the next fortnight, as demand for lateral flow kits surges. It comes despite Javid earlier pledging to triple the supply of tests to 300 million per month.

Commenting further on the situation, Cllr Caliskan said: “I simply cannot believe we are here again, experiencing a shortage of Covid tests. Our care homes look after our most vulnerable residents and the government should have been prepared with stocks.

“Their inaction in the first wave of the pandemic caused hundreds of unnecessary deaths in Enfield care homes, and now we are facing the same issues. I can assure Enfield residents I will continue to do everything I can to hold the government to account on this matter and ensure Enfield Council is exploiting every possible avenue for securing test supplies directly to send onto care homes.”

The Department for Health and Social Care was contacted for comment.

Update (4pm):

A UK Health Security Agency spokesperson said: “The UK’s testing programme is the biggest in Europe with almost 400 million tests carried out since the start of the pandemic. We are delivering record numbers of lateral flow tests to pharmacies across the country, with more than eight million test kits being made available to pharmacies between today and New Year’s Eve.

“We have made 100,000 more PCR booking slots available per day since mid-December and we are continuing to rapidly expand capacity – with over half a million tests carried out on 23rd December alone and delivery capacity doubled to 900,000 PCR and LFD test kits a day. If you have not been able to get the test you need from gov.uk, please keep checking every few hours as more PCR and LFD tests become available every day.”