Covid: NHS website struggling under surge in booster jab bookings as lateral flow tests run out

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports on the rush to speed up the booster campaign and the impact it will have on the NHS

People are experiencing long waits in queues - both virtual and in person - for a booster jab appointment as the system struggles with the volume of users trying to book their third shot after Boris Johnson announced an acceleration of the rollout amid Omicron fears.

The government website also ran out of lateral flow testing kits on Monday morning amid huge demand after double-jabbed people in England who are close contacts of Covid cases were told to take the at home tests for seven days in a row from Tuesday. ITV News tried ordering lateral flow tests online from several regions across England but were told each time "there are no more home tests available".

Long queues for booster jabs at St Thomas' hospital in London. Credit: PA

Tests were still available to get at pharmacies or some community centres. You will need to get a 'collect code' before picking up your test kits from the chemist.

Speaking on a visit to a vaccination clinic in west London, Mr Johnson said there was a “ready supply” of lateral flow tests.

Asked about supply following the website difficulties, the prime minister said: “They can get those tests, we do have a ready supply of lateral flow tests.

How critical is it that the booster campaign is sped up?

“If you can’t get one online for any reason, then there are ample supplies in the shops. But what I think, if I may say so, what that also shows is that people are doing the sensible thing, and getting tests as well.”

A spokesperson for UK Health Security Agency UKHSA said: “Everyone who needs a lateral flow test can collect test kits – either at their local pharmacy, some community sites and some schools and colleges. 

“Due to exceptionally high demand, ordering lateral flow tests on has been temporarily suspended to fulfil existing orders.”

Some people in England are finding it impossible to order lateral flow tests.

New regulations, set to be put to a debate and vote in the Commons this week, could also see the NHS Covid Pass, on the NHS app, becoming mandatory for entry into clubs and other large gatherings

Unvaccinated people will need a negative home test as an alternative to gain entry.

In a televised address on Sunday evening, the prime minister vowed that all over-18s will be offered a Covid booster jab by the end of the year in England, as the target for giving every eligible adult a third dose has been brought forward by a month over fears of a "tidal wave of Omicron" that could cause "very many deaths".

In his own address to the nation, Labour leader Keir Starmer backed moves to ramp up the booster programme as he warned the NHS is in danger of being “overwhelmed”.

'It's our patriotic duty to vote for these measures to ensure that they go through'

But the booking system appeared to be struggling amid the surge in people looking to get their third dose with people stuck in virtual queues with no waiting time given. The site also crashed several times.

Long queues formed too at drop-in vaccination centres across the country, including at St Thomas' hospital in London where the line stretched across Westminster Bridge. Hundreds stood in line at a walk-in centre in Brighton hoping to get a booster on Monday morning.

There were long lines reported in Northern Ireland with waits up to three hours at some drop-in centres, UTV health reporter Deborah McAleese said.

To increase vaccine capacity the government is considering whether to scrap waiting times for observation after Covid-19 jabs, which currently mean a patient must wait at a vaccine centre for 15 minutes after being inoculated.

Meanwhile, the PM confirmed the UK had recorded its first Omicron death and the UK Health Security agency said 10 people are in hospital with with the variant - at least one of those is just 18 years old.

The NHS in England has advised people trying to book a Covid-19 booster jab to try later or tomorrow as people face a queue on the website.

In a tweet, the health service said: “The Covid vaccine booking service is currently facing extremely high demand so is operating a queuing system.

“For users aged 18-29, please be aware that booking opens on Wednesday 15 Dec.

“For all others experiencing waits, we would advise trying again later today or tomorrow.”

The prime minister’s official spokesman said 110,000 people booked a booster before 9am on Monday.

Asked how the website would therefore cope with the much higher number of bookings needed, he said: “Across the programme we are increasing our capacity, be it making sure there is further capacity on the site to adapt to the increased demand, or indeed capacity on the ground.”

Health secretary, Sajid Javid, urged everyone to "take a free lateral flow test" before meeting with people, to combat the Omicron Covid variant despite none being available on the government website.

Mr Javid said the government will “throw everything at” the Covid booster programme to tackle the Omicron variant.

NHS Digital said the service had already booked more than 140,000 vaccine appointments on Monday, with people waiting several minutes.

The health secretary said the government is aiming to vaccinate a million people every day, starting this week. But achieving that number - higher than all other previous vaccination records - will take a huge effort, with health workers facing an “incredibly difficult” challenge, according to a boss at the NHS.

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Responding to the news that lateral flow home test kits are unavailable on the government website, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: “Testing is absolutely vital in keeping us safe and allowing people to make safe choices.

“The government’s inability to procure properly and plan for civil contingencies is reckless. Boris Johnson has his priorities in the wrong place.”

How to collect a lateral flow test from a pharmacy

Since October, you must get a 'collect code' before you can pick up lateral flow tests from the pharmacy.

You can do this either on the website or by calling 119 (free from landlines and mobiles) between 7am and 11pm.

Your collect code will be sent to you by email or text.You can collect test packs for your household or another household but you need to get a code for each household.