Business leaders have warned that major shortcomings in the UK’s coronavirus testing regime are threatening to “cripple” the economy, as they also urged ministers to “get a grip” of the situation.
The test and trace system has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand since the reopening of schools in England and a push by ministers to persuade more employees to go back to the workplace.
There have been widespread reports of people struggling to obtain tests in recent days, and some people in England now face substantial delays in securing them as the government prioritises those most in need.
Business leaders are worried about the risk of a second national lockdown if the test and trace system is unable to pinpoint local outbreaks of Covid-19.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, called on the government to improve the testing regime “immediately” to ensure it could help all those who need it.
“A truly comprehensive test and trace programme is essential if the UK is to manage the virus without further lockdowns which will cripple businesses,” he said.
“Continuing delays and a shortage of tests saps business, staff and consumer confidence at a fragile moment for the economy.”
Business leaders are concerned that more workers will be forced to self-isolate at home while either they or their families are trying to secure tests, or waiting for results.
The Financial Times reported on Wednesday that at the start of September, before schools reopened, 63 per cent of people in England who tested positive received their results by the end of the day after they had provided a swab. But by Tuesday that figure had dropped to just 8 per cent, according to data from the government’s Covid-19 dashboard.
One business figure said that executives were alive to the difficult situation facing the government, adding: “But people are watching the news with mounting apprehension, ministers need to get a grip because the stakes here are really high.”
Matthew Fell, chief policy director for the CBI business group, said the situation was “deeply frustrating” for companies, adding an effective test and trace system was necessary to encourage more people back into the workplace.
“No one doubts how much effort is going in to get it right,” he added. “The prize is having a faster turnround in getting results which will let people know where they stand and whether they need to self-isolate or can return to work quickly.”
Craig Beaumont, head of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said business had been promised a world-beating test and trace system, referring to comments made by Boris Johnson in May.
“Before a vaccine is available, swift and comprehensive testing followed by swift and comprehensive tracing is the only way to give confidence for small business owners to reopen and stay open,” Mr Beaumount added.
Another business figure said some companies had organised their teams into workplace bubbles of a certain number of people. “Obviously if one person has symptoms then all the team has to go [home] . . . people can’t get tests and therefore bubbles can’t come back,” added this person.
The prime minister said on Wednesday the government was doing “everything in our power” to prevent another national lockdown.
Taking questions from MPs, Mr Johnson admitted the country did not currently have enough testing capacity.
He reiterated the government’s target to have laboratory capacity to process 500,000 tests a day in the UK by the end of October. Total lab capacity currently stands at almost 375,000 tests a day.
The government said more than 221,000 tests had been processed in the 24-hour period reported on Tuesday.