Government ignored warnings of Covid testing shortage last month, pharmacies boss says

The Government was warned a month ago that a lateral flow testing crisis was looming without significantly more supplies, the head of a major industry body has said.

By Sally Guyoncourt

The UK is continuing to suffer short supplies of rapid tests since new rules were introduced to avoid self-isolation by daily testing, with frontline workers facing abuse in pharmacies.

At home testing kits have also been repeatedly unavailable to order on the Government’s website.

Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, told i the crisis could have been avoided with better planning.

“I raised this with the UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) in early December saying a lot more kits would be needed asking what its plans are but they never answered my question”, she said.

“The problems around demand should have been anticipated. The government said it boosted the number of kits by eight million but eight million is not enough.”

Ms Hannbeck said that the introduction of the new rules, which mean people can leave self-isolation after two negatives tests on day seven, or take daily tests to avoid isolating when a contact of Covid, have sparked a predictable surge in demand.

“It’s the planning ahead which was not done,” she said, adding that the Government had relied on only one wholesale supplier, Alliance Healthcare, which did not aid the supply issues.

As a result, many pharmacy staff had been on the receiving end of customer anger. “We have got staff suffering abuse, people walking in (to pharmacies) and shouting”, she said.

The view was backed by the National Pharmacy Association, which told i there has been “intermittent shortages in many areas”.

A spokesperson said: “Community pharmacies are doing everything they can but they are not in control of the national supply chain.

“We ask the public to please be patient and courteous with our colleagues, who are doing their utmost, under extreme pressure, to support patients at this time.”

Demand has been so high that some people in possession of the free-to-order tests have begun selling the kits online. On Monday afternoon, auction site eBay had lateral flow kits on sale for as much as £75 per seven tests.

Pressed on the issue, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News: “If people feel that they can’t get the supply they should just refresh their webpage.”

Ms Hannbeck added that pharmacies are “best placed” for the supply of lateral flow test kits, but added: “In order for us to manage this we are going to have to see at least triple the amount of test kits the Government has made available.”

The UKHSA said that eight million tests had been delivered to pharmacies in the last week, but during periods of “exceptional demand” there may be temporary pauses in ordering or receiving tests to ensure it manages distribution.

A 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.”

They added that testing capacity is “continuing to rapidly expand capacity – with over half a million tests carried out on 23 December alone and delivery capacity doubled to 900,000 PCR and LFD test kits a day.”