From Wolverhampton to Aberdeen: How coronavirus testing farce is trying the nation's patience
Got symptoms? Get a test.
That's the simple message for anyone who fears they may have been struck down with the coronavirus.
But people across the region are finding the process of getting tested for this horrible disease to be anything but straightforward.
While Covid cases in parts of the West Midlands are rocketing, the testing system – which the Government had insisted would be "world beating" by now – is falling apart at the seams.
The failings may not be immediately apparent for anyone paying one of these centres a visit.
You are unlikely to see lengthy queues forming outside, and were it not for a few staff milling around, some of the sites would look rather deserted.
However, do not be fooled into thinking that this means testing spaces are available.
Bolton or Aberdeen?
People in the Black Country and Staffordshire with Covid symptoms are increasingly being told that if they want to take a test they need to be willing to travel great distances – more than 400 miles to Scotland in some cases, or the relatively short in comparison two-hour journey to Bolton.
Local walk-in centres are turning people away in their droves, with some switching to an appointment only system at a moment's notice due to high demand.
The problems have been exacerbated by a lack of laboratory space to process tests, leading to further reduced capacity at centres and delays for people awaiting their results.
It paints a very different picture from Boris Johnson's claim in this week's PMQs that the system is "continuing to improve".
Wolverhampton councillor Milkinder Jaspal said he was told by the NHS to travel to Aberdeen for a test after experiencing Covid symptoms.
"I was feeling very unwell and thought the sensible thing to do was to take a test," he said. "They told me to go to Aberdeen – that's 412 miles away and an eight hour journey by car.
"How on earth are you supposed to go all that way when you are ill? Plus you would need to stop for a break and could possibly spread the virus while doing so.
"This is happening a lot and people are not taking the test, which is hardly a good thing when it comes to controlling the virus."
Demand for tests has shot up over the past two weeks in parts of the region as cases continue to rise, meaning that centres which had plenty of capacity are now under pressure.
The test centre on Cannock Chase Council car park is one such example. The site was initially set up as a walk-in centre but has since moved to appointment only due to high demand.
However, people who have not booked online are still turning up in the hope of getting a test, only to be turned away and told to make an appointment.
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Heath Hayes parish councillor Paul Dadge, chair of the Chase Coronavirus Support Network, said: "The staff here are working diligently but at the moment there is a lot of strain on the network.
"We are trying to update people with what is going on, which is increasingly difficult because the situation changes by the hour.
"When it first opened it was underused. Now it is over capacity."
Mr Dadge said he had spoken with people with symptoms who had been unable to get local appointments, while a rise in the number of pupils being sent home from schools and told to get tests was piling extra pressure on the system.
The Showell Road walk-in centre in Wolverhampton has been open since before the lockdown, offering tests without the requirement of an advance booking.
However, the site started turning away people earlier this week due to issues with capacity.
Ashley Hickinbottom, 27, from Bushbury, said: "I've been turned away and I feel really unwell – I'm sweating and I really don't feel good. I live five minutes away so I thought I would give it a go.
"I'm going to have to go online and it's a nightmare. If you need a test you should get one – but this site [Showell Road] is empty, there's nobody here.
"I feel like they should just do it – it takes five minutes tops to do. I'm going to try it but I'm not sure if I'll get anything."
Judith Aston, aged 80, from Bradmore, went to the site to try and get her 11-year-old grandson a test. She was turned away at first, and then allowed in.
She said: "I looked on the internet and it said it was a walk-in centre, but they told us [when we arrived] that it was only for appointments.
"But with a little bit of sweet talk, and a little bit of persuasion, we got in there – and it was empty. Not a soul in there – not a single person getting tested.
"He told me at first we needed to book online or have a referral from someone for a test, but I looked online and it said the same.
"But it seems they've changed the rules – but they haven't changed the website clearly."
Alima Choham, from Pennfields, took her five-year-old daughter to get tested at site at Whitmore Reans Health Centre, Lowe Street, having initially been told to go to Bolton when she tried to book online.
The 33-year-old said: "We booked online but the booking system is very hard. I constantly got 'the service is busy' and naturally there's lots of people trying to get tested.
"I got through in the evening after trying all day from morning until 9pm in the evening and then quite a few came up – including one in Bilston.
"But before that it kept saying 'the service is currently busy, please try again' – you can call a number but they can't book you a test, they're only there to give you advice.
"They gave me one option which was in Bolton of all places – we would've had to have a day trip to Bolton – before I managed to get one later in Wolverhampton.
"Really I would've preferred to get the home testing kit, but there wasn't any option there to do that."
Capacity outstripped by demand
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said testing capacity was "the highest it has ever been", but warned the system was being bogged down by "a significant demand for tests including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible".
"New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for those who need them and we are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, and prioritising at-risk groups," the spokesperson added.
"Our laboratories are processing more than a million tests a week and we recently announced new facilities and technology to process results even faster.
"If you do not have symptoms and are not eligible to get a test you can continue to protect yourself if you wash your hands, wear a face covering and follow social distancing rules."
Dr Anand Rischie, local GP and chair of Walsall Clinical Commissioning Group, said it was vital that people only attempted to get a test if they have symptoms.
She added: "If you think you’ve been in contact with somebody who has the virus you must self-isolate, but you don’t need to worry about getting a test unless you develop a cough, a fever or a change to your sense of taste or smell.
"We’d also remind GP patients that you can’t get a Covid test from your local doctor as the testing is only done at specific national sites. But don’t forget that your GP is still here for you if you have any other health worries during this time."
Ministers have sought to defend testing, with the PM accusing critics of being "too negative" and insisting that the average distance that people have to travel for a test is coming down.
One such critic is John Spellar, the Labour MP for Warley, who said the Government's incompetence was taking a heavy toll on people across the region.
"People are trying to get tests for their kids, they need tests for work," he said. "It is hugely frustrating and the people of the Black Country deserve a much more efficient system.
"The Government has had long enough to sort it out, but they are falling down on the job. Matt Hancock has shown once again that he is completely out of his depth.
"He has mishandled this crisis all the way through, and as soon as there is a reshuffle he should go."
He added: "Given that so many people are now being sent to Aberdeen, you have to ask how big is the testing centre up there? It must be bigger than the Hawthorns and Molineux."
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