The Government Covid-19 test booking website has been branded a shambles after an investigation by this newspaper uncovered a series of alarming errors.
he site believes Portadown and Londonderry are just four miles apart, rather than almost 70. It also thinks 43 miles lie between Ballymena Showgrounds and one of the town’s main hotels.
And it calculated a distance of almost 40 miles between Coleraine and Enniskillen – it is double that.
The erroneous calculations emerged during attempts by this newspaper to book tests from locations around Northern Ireland yesterday – no slots were available at most testing centres.
Growing complaints have been made about difficulties in accessing slots.
Testing is one of the key tools in the Executive’s strategy to deal with the virus. Dr Gabriel Scally branded the system “a shambles”.
The Belfast-born public health expert also voiced fears about the “potentially disastrous” ongoing situation in the Holyland student area of Belfast, and predicted a second national lockdown before Christmas if behaviour does not change.
“Northern Ireland can’t expect to get to grips with this virus if this is the test booking system we have to contend with; it’s a complete shambles,” he said.
“Not only that – it’s a shambles that has been a long time in the making. And it’s a shambles that the authorities were well warned would happen.
“You don’t get many opportunities to get it right with a virus and they missed it.
“They had the opportunity to get it right but they didn’t take that opportunity.”
Dr Scally, who is president of the epidemiology and public health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, described the current testing system as a massive fail and said the situation is out of control, citing the escalating Holyland street parties.
“If someone tests positive in a house which nine people share in the Holyland, how can they self-isolate?” he asked, adding that for the last three weeks the situation “shows every sign of getting out of control” because “it’s not possible to see the mechanisms in place that would bring it back under control. It’s potentially disastrous”.
Dr Scally, a member of the Independent SAGE group of scientists, also claimed the Government had disregarded important advice.
“The current system is failing the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
“The Department of Health has to carry the can for that; Who else can be to blame?
“Public Health England has been chosen to be the whipping boy. This is a blame game.
“The only people responsible for the health of the population in Northern Ireland is the Department of Heath – the minister and the top officials. No-one else.
“It is their job to look after the health of the population.” During an Belfast Telegraph investigation into the availability of Covid tests across Northern Ireland, we discovered a lack of appointments across a huge swathe of the region, as well as a scarcity of home test kits, which Dr Scally described as “worrying”.
“We are up a creek without too many paddles,” he said, pointing to a potential virus timebomb.
“Hospitals admissions and deaths are starting to go up across the UK.
“When that happened in the past, the only thing that brought it under control was lockdown.
“So, all things remaining equal, unfortunately, another lockdown is entirely possible before Christmas.”
Booking a test is done through a centralised NHS system.
There are four fixed testing sites in Northern Ireland and six mobile venues.
A number of geographical anomalies also emerged when attempting to book Covid tests from postcodes in 10 different locations across Northern Ireland on two separate occasions yesterday.
Of the postcodes used from Belfast, Londonderry, Dungannon, Ballymena, Omagh, Enniskillen, Newry, Coleraine, Portadown and Lurgan there were no same day tests offered from six locations.
Despite trying shortly after 10am – when new slots become available – and once again in the afternoon, there were no appointments for postcodes in Dungannon, Derry, Omagh, Enniskillen, Newry and Lurgan.
The message on the website said: “More tests should be available later. If you cannot book a test now, or the location or time are not convenient, try again in a few hours.”
On several occasions there was an additional warning: “Do not call the helplines – you will not be able to get a test this way.”
In the morning, only two postcodes, in Belfast and Portadown, offered testing slots.
For Belfast, the website said there were 18 slots available at Lough Moss Leisure Centre which was deemed closest.
It said: “Your nearest walk-through test site is Carryduff. There are currently no drive-through test sites or home test kits available.”
For the Portadown postcode, the website said: “Your nearest drive-through site is Derry Lycra Car Park (4.1 miles away). Seven slots available.”
In the afternoon, test slots were offered when postcodes from three locations were entered, including a BT42 postcode just outside Ballymena.
Although the residence entered was close to Ross Park Hotel, the website estimated the Ballymena Showgrounds drive-though site was 43 miles away, rather than three.
In another case, a Coleraine postcode was offered a slot in Enniskillen, which it said was almost 44 miles away rather than double that.
Dr Scally said that, without an effective test and trace system, and with Northern Ireland experiencing a lack of both home test kits and available test slots, “it’s inevitable that cases will continue to escalate”.
“It’s not just the speed with which you can get the test that’s important,” he said.
“It’s also the speed with which it can be analysed and results returned.
“All of that needs to be done rapidly and in an integrated fashion.”
SDLP health spokesman Colin McGrath said he has had lots of complaints from constituents about the test booking system.
“There’s definitely a huge problem with it,” he said.
“People are either having to spend all day waiting for an elusive appointment, or people in Co Down are being offered a slot in the Isle of Man or Scotland.
“It doesn’t instil a lot of faith in the system. There is a sufficient lack of confidence in it because of the basic errors that are being made.”
Mr McGrath said he worries that Northern Ireland won’t be able to cope with an increased demand in testing.
“If we can’t deal with it now, how will we fare in a month’s time?” he said.
He added: “Mr Swann needs to recognise the magnitude of the problem before lockdown, which nobody wants, is the only option.”
When questioned about the booking test system the Department of Health referred the Belfast Telegraph to the Public Health Agency, which subsequently referred us to the UK Department of Health and Social Care.
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached by this newspaper for comment.