Exclusive: NHS coronavirus test and trace 'shambolic, frustrating, unfit for purpose', 119 call handler tells ITV News

For weeks now the government has been telling us they are relying on three "lines of defence" to stop the spread of coronavirus: social distancing, local lockdowns and test and trace.

On Tuesday, we were warned some people, particularly the young, were not sticking to distancing rules.

We were also told restrictions in Bolton weren’t working so new measures were brought in there and to add insult to injury the director of NHS Test and Trace apologised for huge hold ups to tests because there is a "pinch point" at the labs.

To me, that sounds like all three lines of defence are down and with cases on the rise there’s little stopping this deadly virus getting out of control again.Let’s look at the testing system.

One public health scientist told me yesterday on it’s own, any testing system that isn’t working, just as cases are rising, is a recipe for disaster. She said both those things together could see it spiralling again. The problem appears to be acute.

ITV News has spoken exclusively to a call handler for NHS 119 - the NHS call centre that books test appointments.

She told us: "It's absolutely shambolic. For instance today I've only been able to put one person through after taking 20-odd calls."

"The site is just not allowing anyone to complete and get an appointment. It's not good and they should be ashamed of themselves.”

The call handler continued: "It's totally frustrating, absolutely frustrating. It's frustrating for them because they're not getting any further."

"They could have been on hold for an hour, they get through to us and think 'at least we'll get an appointment' and we're saying exactly what they're seeing in front of them on their screens. So, not good."

"I thought at one stage we were getting it under control, but since the children have gone back to school, obviously we've got colds and flu. So no, everybody knew this was happening."

"Everybody knew the children were going back to school, knew they'd be sent home if they were coughing, having a bit of a fever, or a cold, they would need a test to go back to school with a negative test, but we're not ready, again we're not ready. How many times do we have to get it wrong before we can get it right.”

The call handler continued: "I'm frustrated, my colleagues are frustrated, our customers who we are trying to help on a helpline are frustrated because we can't help them, and that's been all week this week were we've not been able to help.

"We know because we're talking to customers who are sat outside testing stations, with nobody going in them, and we're telling them it's volume, so we can't get them a date or a time, and they know that's not true. And I know that's not true, and somebody needs to take ownership of this and make it work."

The call handler spoke to ITV News on a condition of anonymity. Credit: ITV News

"When you're taking over 60 calls per day and only getting four people an appointment, it's not good. You're not getting accurate figures so you're going to get the spike before you realise it, and then you'll be like 'the science said'. I'm sick of hearing 'the science said'."

"They know this website isn't working, it's unfit for purpose. Let people get into these test centres, people are actually trying to do the right thing but they can't, their hands are tied. They go to a test centre and if they haven't got this code, which they cannot get hold of, they can't go in."

She continued: "They're saying volume and I know it's not, because I was talking to customers who can't get into test centres where there's nobody testing. Our experience has been that we could be sending someone from Ireland to Scotland to test, it's madness, total madness."

"Today we've been told they've capped it at 75 miles. There's not many people who want to travel 75 miles to take a test. So if we don't change that to get step one right, how on earth are we going to get anything else right."

"I had one this morning where they wanted him to go 200 miles from his house, and they're saying 75 but it's still coming up 200 miles from his house."

"The whole system is not working from beginning to end. If you can get to the end, and click continue to get the appointment confirmed it takes you back to the beginning. That's not a new issues that's been going on all week."

Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show there have now been 57,500 Covid-19 deaths Credit: PA

Hundreds of people trying to get tests are telling similar stories online. When they do finally get through they’re told the only apt available is hundreds of miles away.

Trying to order a home test is no better, the website simply tells us there aren’t any.

So what does this mean?

It means hundreds of potentially infectious and ill patients are being asked to get in their cars and drive for miles to a testing site, presumably stopping on the way to get petrol, go to the loo or get refreshments. And they’re the lucky ones.

Some may not have a car, others can’t get a home test.

Jacqueline Clarke has Covid-19 symptoms but was told to make a 150-mile round trip for a test:

So they can’t get a test, won’t know if they have coronavirus, might return to work etc etc. Can you see why this is a problem?Matt Hancock said it may take weeks to rectify.

I’ve been told it's a shortage of chemicals in the labs as well as a shortage of staff, so presumably only testing sites where nearby labs can analyse the tests are seeing patients.

The government has acknowledged there is a problem but also said there’s been a huge rise in the number of people trying to get tests who aren’t eligible.

I would have thought anyone trying to get a test thought they were eligible, but if this is a genuine concern how do you stop people trying to get a test if they genuinely think they need one?

A test site set up at Twickenham Stadium. Credit: ITV News

I haven’t even mentioned the problems with social distancing or local lockdowns not working on certain places (of course they have in Leicester).

This week has marked a bit of a turning point for coronavirus in the UK, the government says it's acting decisively and it hopes to avoid a rise in hospital admissions as well as deaths.

Let's hope they've been decisive enough because we all know what the first wave looked like.