Hancock urges citizens not to ‘game the system’ as people find local coronavirus tests by claiming to live 500 miles away

Written by Eleanor Langford and Sam Trendall on 16 September 2020 in News

Twickenham MP claims her constituents have been able to book local tests only by entering an Aberdeen postcode

Credit: Pxhere

Matt Hancock has warned the public not to “game the system” after one MP revealed some of her constituents only got a local test by claiming they lived 500 miles away.

Munira Wilson, Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, told the health secretary on Tuesday that a glitch in the online system for booking tests meant some local slots were only shown as available if the person put in a different postcode. 

"[Some] have also been advised that if they put an Aberdeen postcode into the system, they can get a test in Twickenham. And they have succeeded," she said. “How on earth is a world-beating test and trace system functioning like this, and what is the secretary of state doing to fix it? In the meantime, does he recommend that I tell constituents who desperately need a test to game the system in that way?”

“No,” Hancock responded. “In fact, it is incumbent on us all to take a responsible approach and tell our constituents that tests are available in large numbers, that the average distance travelled is 5.8 miles and that people should take this seriously and not game the system.”

Wilson’s testimony is not the first example of citizens seeking a test being advised to travel to other parts of the country. The Guardian recently reported that Melonie Brown from Walthamstow in east London tried to book a test for her son, only for the booking website to direct her first to a centre in first Inverness and then, on a subsequent visit, to Telford.

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After contacting her local MP Stella Creasy, Brown was advised that there is, in fact, a testing centre in Walthamstow itself – which, at the time, was open for appointments and walk-in tests.

A Serco worker at the testing site told the newspaper that they did not know why it would not appear in online searches.

Ministers have faced criticism following numerous other reports of citizens with coronavirus symptoms unable to get a test, or being offered a test at a centre many hours from where they live.

The health secretary admitted in the Commons that the problems with test availability may persist for a “matter of weeks”. Shortages are due to a "sharp rise" in those seeking a test, "including those who are not eligible".

He added that tests were being prioritised for at-risk individuals, such as those in care homes.

"I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation. The top priority is and always has been acute clinical care. The next priority is social care, where we're now sending over 100,000 tests a day because we've all seen the risks this virus poses in care homes,” he told MPs.

But shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said Hancock was “losing control of this virus”, adding that “extra demand on the system was inevitable” and should have been foreseen. 

This week, NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said shortages were having a “significant impact and a growing impact on the NHS, and that is a problem”.

He was among health leaders warning that many NHS staff were unable to return to work as they were unable to get tested when they displayed coronavirus symptoms.

Hopson added: "Nobody knows how widespread this problem is, nobody knows how long it's going to go on for, nobody knows, for example, given that there are scarcities of tests, about who's going to be prioritised for those tests that are available."

He told Sky News: “Chief execs in Leeds and Bristol, in London, all of whom are saying 'look we've got staff off that we simply can't afford to have off', because they can't get access to tests."


About the author

Eleanor Langford is a reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @eleanormia.

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