In England, parents despair at COVID dilemma as testing system buckles

People queue outside a test centre in Southend-on-sea

BIRMINGHAM/SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, England (Reuters) – Parents across England are facing a COVID-19 dilemma: their children are not allowed to return to school unless they have a negative coronavirus test, but it is fiendishly difficult to get one as the British testing system buckles.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who in May promised to create a “world beating” system to test and trace people exposed to the virus, said he sympathised with those unable to get a test but that the system was struggling with massive demand.

Across England, though, parents were frustrated.

Vinay Guwant, 44, said his son had developed a cough over the weekend and that his school had said he could only return if he had a negative test result.

For three days, Guwant repeatedly tried and failed to get a test, waking up in the early hours and staying up past midnight to navigate the government’s website and search for a test.

He only got a test after a friend telephoned him to say slots were available.

Guwant, who praised the staff who carried out his son’s test, blamed the problems on the IT system and said he worries it may struggle with an expected second wave of COVID-19 over coming months as England approaches winter.

“If the system is this bad now you have to wonder how it will cope with the winter,” he told Reuters at a testing centre at Birmingham University, in England’s second-largest city. “It needs drastic attention now.”

While the centre was quiet on Thursday, attempts by a Reuters reporter to book a test online were directed to a test centre 117 miles away in Accrington in northern England and another 362 miles away in Antrim in Northern Ireland.

British health officials say there is a lack of laboratory capacity though they have also blamed people for seeking tests without any symptoms.

For parents the problems were acute.

In Southend-on-Sea – 161 miles (260 km) east of Birmingham – parents faced a similar Catch-22.

“I’ve been trying online every hour on the hour for four days and I finally got an appointment last night,” said Kelly Atkins, a local resident at a test centre.

“So yes, it’s like winning the lottery, to be honest,” Atkins said, adding that her children had symptoms too but trying to book a test for a family was a “complete disaster”.

Back in Birmingham some said the public’s compliance with the quarantine rules could crumble unless the testing system was fixed.

“My daughter has already missed so much school this year it has been a hard decision to keep her off,” said Sophie Gray. “We are all trying to do our best but the government has to put in place the right infrastructure for this to work.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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