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U.K. May Limit Virus Testing to Worst Cases as Labs Struggle

Emily Ashton and Joe Mayes

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. government warned that coronavirus tests could soon be further restricted as laboratories struggle to cope with rising demand, in a blow to businesses seeking to get more workers back to the office.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday he would “not shirk from decisions about prioritization” and resources would be focused on hospitals and care homes -- a comment that suggests community testing will be reduced if demand continues to grow. The minister said he believed the problems in the system would take “a matter of weeks” to resolve.

U.K. Races to Fix Struggling Covid Test System as Cases Rise

With Covid-19 cases on the rise, booking slots are already being restricted at testing centers because the government says it is focusing capacity in Covid-19 hotspots. It means people across the country are finding it impossible to get themselves and their children tested -- and as a result are required to isolate at home for two weeks.

The government is facing calls to explain why its test and trace system, described by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “world-beating,” is now struggling, six months after the pandemic became a national crisis.

‘Prioritize Once Again’

Unless the testing and contact tracing program functions effectively, the U.K. economy -- which registered almost 700,000 jobs lost in the pandemic on Tuesday -- will face another battering from lockdown restrictions if the virus surges back in the months ahead.

Speaking in Parliament, Hancock said the testing system was being put under strain by people who did not have symptoms. “Over the summer when demand was low, we were able to meet all requirements for testing, whether priorities or not, but as demand has risen we are having to prioritize once again,” he said. “I do not shirk from decisions about prioritization.”

Johnson Pledges Millions of Covid Tests But U.K. Labs Can’t Cope

In other developments on Tuesday:

Government figures showed 12% of pupils in England weren’t in school last week, even after ministers ordered classes to restart for all studentsThe government closed a virus testing site to clear space for customs checks on trucks importing goods, which may be needed after the Brexit transition period ends in DecemberCovid infections are rising in the U.K. and 3,105 new cases were reported in a day, according to government figures Tuesday.

Last week Johnson laid out his ambition for a dramatic acceleration of the country’s testing regime, with millions conducted each day to help the country get back to normal.

“It really does beggar belief that having gone from promising 10 million tests a day last week they are now threatening to restrict tests this week,” the U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party’s health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said.

The Department of Health and Social Care said new booking slots and home testing kits are being made available every day for people with symptoms. “We are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, and prioritizing at-risk groups,” a spokesman for the department said in a statement.

(Updates to add Hancock comment in second paragraph)

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