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Covid testing: If you’ve got a fever or a cough, get ready to join hunt for secret coronavirus test centre

Residents needing coronavirus swabs sent on 'wild goose chases'

17 September, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Test centre marshals in Kentish Town

A COVID-19 walk-in centre has been operating in the heart of Camden at a time when some residents have been told to travel 200 miles out of London to find a test.

The mobile unit in a yard behind the Forum nightclub in Kentish Town has been accepting anyone who turns up even without an appointment.

The New Journal found a queue outside the unit on Tuesday morning but the official coronavirus call centre, which people dial when they start showing symptoms, has not been directing people to it.

So, while some patients thought the service was working smoothly, many more were struggling to meet critical government advice to get tested.

Amid the deepening chaos, it was revealed on Tuesday evening that the number of tests available to residents in Camden had been intentionally restricted because the borough is not officially on a watchlist of areas at risk of local lockdowns.

Labour deputy council leader Pat Callaghan likened the pursuit of Covid tests in Camden to hunting gold at a council scrutiny meeting on Tuesday.

Residents have been told swab kits were unavailable across all of London while some have been sent on “massive wild goose chases” to centres that do not exist. The delays have caused children to take time off school, while there were reports of patients cancelling planned operations in hospital.

New Journal readers trying to navigate the system painted a picture of incoherence.

“People are complaining about being told to travel 200 miles to be tested but you can get one right around the block,” said Lena Burgess, who lives in Kentish Town. “Why aren’t they telling anyone about it? Do they not want the work?”

A spreadsheet seen by the New Journal lists several other centres across London, including the Kentish Town facility.

Ms Burgess added: “But there is no mention of any of these sites online, nothing on Google. It’s total chaos.”

Hospitals are demanding tests are taken by outpatients before they are admitted for surgery.

One patient who was on the brink of cancelling their appointment as they could not get a test was eventually slipped a number by a frustrated medic, allowing them to access a centre underneath the Tottenham Hotspur football stadium.

Like the centre in Greenwood Place, the centre in Haringey was not known about by call handlers on the government’s official advice line when we rang to check as part of our investigation this week.

Chris Harrison, who has lived in King’s Cross since the 1970s, was told by the same official 119 number to go to Coal Drops Yard, part of the railwaylands regeneration site. But when he arrived the, site was “totally deserted”.

He said: “There was nothing at the information kiosk. None of the high end shops knew anything about it. A security guard with a walkie-talkie said there was one here in April. We phoned back on the same number the next day and they said they didn’t know anything about Coal Drops Yard. They said no tests were available in London or would be at the moment or the foreseeable future.

“We got nothing within a 200-mile limit of London, they said. No postal. No walk in. No drive through.”

The centre in Greenwood Place was taking anybody who turned up, but will switch to an appointment only basis

Mr Harrison added: “They all seem to be sprinkled about the place, but they don’t seem to be able to co-ordinate them. It should be the simplest thing in the world to say ‘give us your post code and we’ll tell you where they are’.”

Another patient, Ian Gannon, who lives in King’s Cross, said: “The thing I can’t understand is the testing kit itself is very simple. It’s just a swab, basically. Why aren’t they just stockpiling at entrance of every surgery? Why go hundreds of miles just for cotton buds?” For those who have been tested, there have been reports of further delays in actually getting swabs analysed.

At Tuesday’s council meeting – a session of the Covid-19 scrutiny committee – Camden’s public health director, Dr Julie Billett, said: “This is an issue that is all about lab capacity. The available capacity is being prioritised to support local authorities with higher incidence rates and are responding to outbreaks.”

She added: “Areas like Camden, where we have a lower incidence rate, are seen as lower priority. Therefore the appointment slots are less and less available to our residents. Key-workers are facing major challengers. Unfortunately, all we can do is ensure this issue is communicated to residents, encourage residents to try and access tests throughout the day. Last week we had 1600 tests in Camden, compared to the previous week that’s a fall of around 200 tests. We should be looking at an increase, not a decrease.”

Camden schools had received 10 kits and had been advised to use them only in exceptional circumstances. “We feel we are in exceptional circumstances,” said Dr Billett, although she added that she did not believe the council was “missing a large undetected community transition in the borough at this moment”.


Cllr Callaghan said she knew of a child missing a week of school because of test shortages, adding: “People have been asked to go hundreds of miles away. It is happening. Somebody from London was asked to go to Cambridge for a test. In our care homes we are testing residents once a month. We are getting more tests for staff, but tests are at a premium. I think you could get gold quicker than these tests. It’s falling down. It’s failing all of us.”

Scrutiny meeting chairman Councillor Awale Olad said he felt “powerless” to help parents who had asked him if he had influence in getting children tests. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) admitted the test and trace system had seen “significant demand”, but insisted capacity was the “highest it has ever been”.

A spokesman added: “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. “Our laboratories are processing more than a million tests a week and we recently announced new facilities and technology to process results even faster.”

The mobile testing unit behind the Forum in Greenwood Place is today (Thursday) due to switch to an appointment only basis.

It’s an all clear for Sir Keir

HOLBORN and St Pancras MP Sir Keir Starmer had a brief period of isolation at home this week, while he waited for a Covid-19 test result for one of his children to come back. The Labour Party leader said he was “pleased and relieved” that it had come back negative.

He had gone back to his Kentish Town home after a radio interview on Monday morning, after learning of the need for a test. This meant he could not take part in the internal market debate on Europe. He was also absent from yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questons while he waited for the all clear.

Holborn and St Pancras MP Sir Keir Starmer

Mr Starmer said he was able to get easier access to a test despite the shortages because his wife works in the NHS. Despite his family’s swift testing experience, Mr Starmer said he had strong concerns for “thousands of families” who are struggling to get checked, adding: “They deserve answers and for this problem to be fixed.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during PMQs: “Eighty-nine per cent of those that have in person tests get [results] the next day. “We are working very fast to turn around all the test requests that we get.”

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