A lack of coronavirus tests for NHS staff is leading to staff absences and services being put at risk, hospital bosses have warned.
NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, said staff are having to self-isolate rather than work because they cannot get tests for themselves or family members.
It comes after widespread reports of people struggling to get tested.
They government said capacity is the “highest it had ever been”.
The government’s testing system – part of its test, track and trace operation which Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised would be “world-beating” – has faced criticism in recent weeks.
An increase in demand for coronavirus tests has led to local shortages – with some people being directed to test sites hundreds of miles from their homes.
Meanwhile, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was seeking “urgent discussions” with the UK government over an apparent backlog.
‘Working in the dark’
Latest figures from last week showed around 220,000 tests are processed each day.
According to those government figures, the capacity for testing is more than 350,000 – which includes swab tests and antibody tests – but the aim is to increase that to 500,000 a day by the end of October.
Last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted there had been “challenges in access to tests” but said “the vast majority of people get their tests rapidly and close to home”. He suggested demand from people who did not have symptoms was partly to blame for the shortages.
NHS Providers said hospitals in London, Bristol and Leeds had raised concerns over the weekend about staff absences because of a lack of testing.
“It’s clear that there are current capacity problems with the testing regime,” said Chris Hopson, NHS Providers chief executive.
“It’s not just access for tests for staff members themselves, it’s also access for their family members as NHS workers have to self-isolate if their family members are unable to confirm if they have Covid-19 or not.
“The problem is that NHS trusts are working in the dark – they don’t know why these shortages are occurring, how long they are likely to last, how geographically widespread they are likely to be and what priority will be given to healthcare workers and their families in accessing scarce tests.”
Mr Hopson said trusts need to know more detail so they can plan accordingly, for example by creating their own testing facilities.
“Our recent survey showed how concerned trust leaders were about the impact of inadequate testing on their ability to restore services and it’s disappointing that no detailed information on the current problems has been shared,” he said.
He said patients who are due to come in for treatment should also be prioritised for tests.
‘I was meant to be seeing patients’
Some people say they booked tests online only to be turned away from testing centres because they were not sent a QR code – a barcode that can be scanned on a smartphone.
One doctor working in a coronavirus hotspot said she applied for a test for herself and her partner after they developed coughs and fevers.
After refreshing the website for five hours, she managed to get an appointment but on arrival was told no booking had been made.
She had taken screenshots of a confirmation code but was not sent a QR code to scan. “I showed the screenshots but I was told that the appointments weren’t happening,” she said.
“I have to say I burst into tears. I was meant to be seeing patients and I feel guilty.”
A nurse in the South West, whose daughter had a persistent cough and temperature, said he had almost been turned away despite having a test booked.
After hours of trying, he had “eventually” booked at a site about 50 miles away and been sent a confirmation but no QR code.
And on arrival at the testing site, he had been told he could not have a test. “I was told, ‘There is nothing we can do,’ at first,” he said.
Eventually, he applied for the first testing appointment he could find anywhere in the country – in this case, about 500 miles away in Dundee – and managed to get a QR code.
By Rachel Schraer, BBC health reporter
NHS Providers said the lack of testing was also hindering preparations for the winter, when hospitals could become busier due to Covid-19 and seasonal flu.
Dr Rachel Ward, a GP in Newbury, told BBC Breakfast she was seeing a lot of patients who were struggling to get tests, saying a lot of families were “at the end of their tether” as it was “very stressful when you are faced with two weeks off work”.
She said if the staff at her practice were unable to get tests and had to self-isolate it would have a “huge impact” on patients as some of their healthcare workers are booked in to administer 100 flu jabs in a day.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the British Medical Association has said the government should focus on the current testing system – rather than its “Operation Moonshot” plan which aims to see millions of tests processed every day by using a new type of test which is not yet rolled out.
“Down here on planet Earth, we need a fit for purpose test and trace system in the here and now with capacity, agility and accessibility that doesn’t require 100-mile journeys that disadvantage some of the most vulnerable,” the BMA’s Dr Chaand Nagpaul is expected to say in a speech later on Tuesday.
Mr Johnson previously said a mass-testing programme could be ready by the spring and could help the UK to avoid a second national lockdown.
A new lab is also being opened near Loughborough in the coming weeks that will be able to process 50,000 tests a day.
The Department of Health and Social Care said testing capacity has been targeted at the hardest-hit areas following a rise in demand.
An NHS spokeswoman said: “Hospitals continue to fully comply with recommended patient and staff testing protocols.
“To further support the national test and trace programme, NHS hospital labs have now been asked to further expand their successful, fast turnaround and highly accurate, testing capacity.”