Key workers and NHS staff have raised concerns about the management of a national network of drive-in coronavirus testing centres, with doctors at one London hospital trust “actively discouraging” staff from using them.
Thousands of people have turned up at more than 30 locations around the UK to be swabbed for traces of the virus, after the government opened up facilities previously reserved for NHS workers to all employees in essential services, including care homes and utilities.
The expansion in testing at the weekend has led to long queues at some facilities, with motorists – many of them already feeling unwell with symptoms of Covid-19 – stuck in their cars in hot weather for hours, forbidden from opening windows and unable to use toilets or find water.
The Guardian was contacted about multiple concerns, including queues of up to five hours, workers with appointments turned away because of delays, leaking test vials, wrongly labelled samples, and lost test results at Nottingham and Wembley.
A doctor at the Royal Free NHS trust, which operates three hospitals in north London, said they were so concerned about the drive-in facility located in the Ikea car park in Wembley that staff had been told not to use it.
The regional network, which will be extended to 50 locations, is a cornerstone of the government’s target of reaching 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.
Contracts to operate the facilities have been awarded under special pandemic rules, through a fast-track process without open competition. They were handed to private companies including the accountants Deloitte, the public services specialists Serco and Sodexo and the pharmacy chain Boots, which has also trained and provided more than 300 staff to administer swabs.
At Wembley, tests have been lost, with no contact number provided to chase missing results. The site is operated by Sodexo, but ensuring staff receive results is the responsibility of Deloitte. The accounting firm is managing logistics and data across most of the test centres, including booking tests, getting samples to the labs and communicating the results.
The Royal Free source said: “All three [of the trust’s] hospitals are actively discouraging people from going there. We have no faith that they would get the result. The chain of command is very opaque and it is very difficult to know how you get your results back. It should be run by people with operational experience of clinical tasks, not by an accountancy firm.”
Instead of using Wembley, the trust is swabbing staff at work and sending the results to Francis Crick Institute laboratories for analysis. Asked to comment, a spokesperson for the trust confirmed staff were being tested at work.
People attending a number of drive-in facilities reported being left with no choice but to take their own swabs, having expected the procedure to be carried out by a trained professional.
James Collins, a carer at a home for vulnerable adults in Lincoln who has been self-isolating with a cough, said he waited for five hours for a test at Robin Hood airport in Doncaster on Saturday after a two-hour round trip to get there.
Collins, who described the experience as “the worst seven hours of my life”, was surprised to be told to swab himself. “I’m scared I haven’t done the test right,” he said after testing negative. “If I wanted to do it myself I would have gone for a home test.”
At Doncaster and elsewhere, security guards patrolled the lanes warning motorists not to take photos or videos and not to open their windows. Drivers could communicate with marshals only by phone, using numbers written on signs. There were some portable toilets, but after a single use they were sealed, awaiting cleaning. Motorists waited in three separate queues before being handed their tests.
Serco, which runs nine centres including Doncaster, said the longest recorded wait was two hours, adding: “Serco is managing the site facilities at some of the Covid-19 test facilities. The sites are becoming increasingly busy and we are working hard to get people through the centres as quickly as possible.”
Anna Whittekind, a nutritionist who has been off work with chest and stomach pains for 12 days over the last month, said she and her husband, who works for the NHS, had waited three hours in the heat at a drive-in facility. Her result arrived quickly and was negative.
“I have no idea whether I managed to take a good enough swab, so it may have all been a waste of time,” she said. “I felt for the poor souls working there, but the organisation was abysmal.”
A worker at the Lighthouse laboratory in Milton Keynes, which was opened by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, this month as one of three “megalabs” created to support the testing initiative, said she was concerned about safety and lost results.
She claimed the lab, which is capable of processing up to 10,000 tests in 24 hours, had received hundreds of swabs in vials that either were leaking or were not sealed in two bags as required, meaning the couriers and technicians handling them risked contamination.
Other swabs had arrived with labelling errors, so that the results were unlikely to reach the person tested.
“We do feed these problems back to the test sites and some improve,” she said, “but some are consistently poor and in some cases this goes beyond just making our lives difficult to actively endangering us or the reliability of results.”
Steve Fay, a physiotherapist in respiratory care in Leicester, said he was seen at a centre in Nottingham operated by Boots on 1 April. Having been told that the result would take up to two days, he was left waiting for more than a week. His wife, who works as an NHS nurse and had her test at the same time as him, had to wait even longer.
After chasing with 14 emails, Fay was eventually referred to Deloitte, where he received a response from a management consultant in the firm’s “risk advisory” team.
“I threatened to make this public when suddenly a reply in one hour and a result an hour later,” said Fay. “The tests both came back as negative. Personally I’m very doubtful of this test because we both had the symptoms.”
A spokesman for Deloitte said: “Deloitte has a specialist health sector practice, which includes a large number of staff with operational healthcare experience. This is the group who is at the core of our work, supplemented where appropriate with individuals with technical skills relevant to the work we are doing.”
Boots said it managed the Nottingham site but had “no role in processing the results”. Sodexo said it too was not responsible for getting test results to workers.
The Department of Health and Social Care, which is responsible for administering the national network, said the latest records showed more than 90% of people tested up to 21 April received their results within two days.