Mayor and Director of Public Health on concerns about coronavirus testing capacity
Over the weekend, there were reports of residents being turned away from Hackney's two coronavirus testing centres.
The Mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville and Director of Public Health, Dr Sandra Husbands, have raised concerns about testing capacity with the government.
At the weekend, hundreds of people in Hackney who needed a coronavirus test were turned away from our two testing centres, thanks to the shambolic testing system the Government promised us would be 'world class' and 'local by default'.
Many people, including key workers, trying to book online were told to travel hundreds of miles to Inverness or Dundee - and by 10am on Sunday, people were told there were not enough tests available at the local walk-in centres. In Stamford Hill, just 84 tests were available, at a centre that routinely saw several hundred people a day - even before schools reopened and people were encouraged to return to their offices.
Our residents, GPs and community groups are deeply worried and have been contacting us, desperate to understand what they should do now, in order to protect themselves, their families and neighbours. We’ve heard of doctors, teachers and other vital key workers who are having to self-isolate for longer than necessary, because they have been unable to get a test and find out if they have coronavirus. Hackney is one small borough, and the consequences of this happening across London and the rest of the country are incredibly worrying.
I share people’s anger, frustration and fear about the government's handling of testing. The safe reopening of schools and the economy is absolutely dependent on the availability of a robust and effective testing regime. However, as it stands, local authorities and public health services are unable to do their job, and it’s now impossible to get an accurate sense of the scale of the virus in Hackney or across the country.
In Hackney, just two weeks ago we had the highest number of positive cases in London - this week we’ve slipped to number 17. While on paper this should be good news, I strongly believe that this is because our residents have not been able to get the tests they need, close to where they live and work. Until we have a drop in infection rates that is matched by sustained levels of testing, we cannot feel truly confident that we are having an impact on the virus in our communities.
Walk-in testing capacity is especially important in Hackney, due to a significant percentage of our population being digitally excluded. We’ve emphasised this to the Government countless times. The fact that 97 people at the testing site in Stamford Hill - a site the government worked with us to set up in response to high infection rates in the area - were turned away on Sunday alone, is evidence of the scale. That’s 97 worried people who may be infected...but we don’t know if they are and neither do they.
As the government encouraged people back to the office and sent children back to school, it was clear that September would see an increase in the number of people getting tested as more people interact. This should have been planned for weeks ago and we do not accept the suggestion that the public is to blame for taking ‘unnecessary’ tests.
We urgently need a firm commitment from the government that it will step up and ensure there is adequate testing capacity, that people can access local test facilities easily - without booking, if necessary - and the process is transparent and delivered in partnership with local authorities. In only the last seven days we have gone from communicating an expansion of Hackney testing, to now explaining that when residents need it, these sites are now closed to them. I have written to the Prime Minister, urging him to give this his urgent attention, and our Director of Public Health has also raised this with the Department for Health and Social Care, neither of us will stop until we get this fixed
In the meantime, we have no alternative but to urge residents with symptoms of coronavirus to continue to try to book a test online, to call 119 if they cannot access the internet and to let us know by emailing me at email@example.com if they have any problems accessing a test.
Today I have joined the Mayor in raising my concerns with central government about coronavirus testing in Hackney over the weekend.
It is absolutely critical that we have effective, timely and readily available community testing to ensure the safety of our residents in the face of this potentially deadly virus, and unfortunately it was clear over the weekend that this is not happening, both in Hackney and in other parts of the country.
The government has requested that Hackney Council supports them in local contact tracing, which we are launching imminently. However we need positive test results to commence contact tracing, and to put wider public health measures in place. If our residents are unable to get tested, then we are unable to do this. Quite simply, without a good testing programme, we cannot do our job.
After the localised outbreak of coronavirus in Stamford Hill, we urged the government to set up a second, local mobile testing unit, which was first deployed on 26 July to increase testing in the area. One of the issues for the community in Hackney is lack of access to the internet, which would make booking tests, or even knowing about how or where to go difficult; this is particularly true for the Orthodox Jewish community, which has been particularly affected by this outbreak.
The Department for Health and Social Care, recognising the needs of our communities, agreed that both sites in Hackney would accept walk-ins, but unfortunately this policy seems to have been changed over the weekend without consultation with the Council, and was not communicated either with us or local residents. This has led to a lot of concern in the community and risks undoing all the hard work that we've done to engage local people and undermines the fragile trust that we've developed with them in the system.
We need timely and transparent communications between local authorities, central government and the companies running the test and trace system to enable us to keep our communities safe. As local authorities, we are standing by, ready to help, but we need the government to work in a way that enables us to do this.
I remain concerned that we still do not have clarity on when large scale testing will again be available for our residents and the impact this will have on our borough and the ability for the country to have a clear understanding of infection rates. People may be unnecessarily self-isolating, or worse still, going about while infected.
We have escalated our concerns and will do everything we can as a Council to support testing facilities for our residents.
Anyone with symptoms must continue to follow government guidance and try to book a test online or by calling 119. It is also more important than ever that we all follow key guidance:
Do not meet in groups of more than six
Wear a face covering when in public
Wash your hands regularly and well
Keep your distance from others not in your household.