The mess of trying to book a Covid-19 test

Published on 14 September 2020 in ,

Today I went for a Covid-19 test. The test itself was fine. Who knows what the results are, but the test itself was fine. The process with getting one, far from it.

Now before I go on, I should say I don’t personally have any Covid-19 symptoms. The reason I went for a test was simple. I was asked to.

Like millions of others, I have been using the Covid-19 Symptom Study app. For months on end I’ve been dutifully logging on daily, telling it about my state of health. Are you okay, it asks you. I never actually knew what happened if I said I wasn’t as I had been in good health ever since I’d started using the app.

But last week I got a cold. And when the app was asking me if I was in good health, I had to reply “no”.

Now I’m pretty confident I had a cold. The symptoms all pointed to it. Runny nose, sore throat, sinus pain. No cough, but not every cold has a cough. This looked like a cold, it smelt like a cold. I was sure it was a cold. I had no fever. No continuous cough. And I still had a sense of taste. But the whole point of the app is to try and learn more about Covid-19 so it would have been a bit silly of me to lie and say I was all good. So I truthfully reported my symptoms.

I didn’t think any more of it until an email arrived in my inbox inviting me to take a Covid-19. The people behind the app were trying to predict if people had Covid-19. To test their predictions, they wanted to test people they thought did and didn’t have Covid-19. Would I take part?

I ummed and ahhed about it. Did I want the hassle? What if it came back I had Covid-19? But this morning I decided sod it. I’d take part in the name of research.

Reading through the email I read that the test would be done using the national testing system. At this point my eyebrows raised up high having read so much recently about issues people were having with it. With the website telling people to go to Inverness when they lived in Swansea, and other such stupidity. I decided to try and book a test. But if I couldn’t get anything, no matter. Not my fault.

I logged on to the website around 9am, got told there were no tests anywhere, sighed, and gave up. Sorry app people, but your research would have to do without me.

No sooner had I given up, and Catherine came into the room. The children were being sent home from school. They’d only been back a week and a half.

I wasn’t the only one with a cold. The children had one too. Runny noses, sore throats. Unlike me, they had a cough. Not a continuous cough but an intermittent cough. The kind where you cough a couple of times then stop naturally. Then some minutes later you cough again. The kind of cough that sounds a bit you’re trying to shift phlegm.

Now the NHS definition of this key Covid-19 symptom, the Continuous Cough, is – for my money – a bit vague. Here it is:

this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours

NHS: Check if you or your child has coronavirus symptoms

What does “coughing a lot” mean? I have been assuming it’s a coughing fit. The find where you can’t stop coughing and it goes on for ages and ages and ages. You cough so much that it hurts. And you cannot stop. That feels like a lot to me. It’s also what one of my mum’s friends – who is a nurse – defined it as. The children definitely don’t have that. My daughter is barely coughing at all. Just a splutter every few minutes.

To be honest, I believe school have over-reacted. But they are not medical staff, and are working off the same woolly guidance that we all are. And now there was no choice. If we wanted to get them back to school in the next fortnight, they needed a test.

I reluctantly fired up the testing website again. And went in for the battle. This time I couldn’t give up so quickly. A test had to be done.

Now I began to notice how badly designed the process was.

To take a simple example. I put in that I wanted to book a test for someone else. It then immediately asked me if I had symptoms. Me. Not the person I’m booking for.

It then asked me about my employment status. Was I working from home or not? Quite how this was relevant when I was booking a test for someone else, I couldn’t work out.

Then the website told me there were no tests available, and booted me out.

I tried again, repeating all the steps. Several times. At one point I got to add on my son’s details. I put in my son’s date of birth. He’s in primary school. So obviously the website asked me what his employment status was. There was nothing to say “school pupil”. All I could do was put that he wasn’t working. It did the same for his younger sister.

That was nothing compared to the problem of there being no test slots. At one point I got all excited as it told me there were three walk in centres within three miles of our house. Then it said there was nothing again. Space at a centre miles away in Ancoats turned up. I filled in the forms again, to find they were no longer there. Another go saw Bolton come up. Then Bolton went.

The system seems to push you towards drive-in centres if you tell it you have a car. So I tried the walk-in centres. This was fun as it was a separate process to the drive-in centres meaning I had to re-submit all the information I’d already typed out, all over again. And in much more detail. For drive-in I only needed to give a mobile number. For walk-in, they wanted a landline that I don’t have. Then it asked if the children had their own landline. Oh and did they have their own email? Because every four year old has their own email.

I’d get dumped on a screen telling me it might take a minute for results to appear. And nothing ever did. So I started the whole process again from scratch. It was so painful I screamed very loudly, and wanted to throw my laptop out of the window.

After several minutes of staring at the page telling me to wait, I got curious as to what this final web page was actually doing. Working as I do in information technology I knew how to find out what it was doing under the bonnet. I hit the submit button and could see the web page making a request to a server. Immediately an error message came back. But the web page didn’t handle the error. It just silently hid the fact there was an error, leaving the user non-the-wiser.

It was learning this that actually saw me make some process. I finally realised that I didn’t need to keep going through the whole process from scratch. I could just keep hitting the button, and see what happened. If an error came up, I simply tried again. And again. And again.

On about the fifth go, there was a success. It gave me the option of booking tests at a walk-in centre. Frantically I booked in for three people – one for me (for the app people) and two for the children. I might as well, I thought. After all, if the children did have Covid-19, I’d probably have it too, and I’d be isolating anyway.

Four hours later we drove off to the test centre. There’s at least three centres near us, which is why the system had booked us into a walk-in centre nine miles away in Oldham.

After all the hassle of getting a test, the actual process was easy, We got tested quickly and efficiently. A friendly member of staff guided is through the process. It’s not the most pleasant experience shoving a swab up your nose, but there’s worse problems in life. My son laughed as he found it ticklish. We did everything we needed to do, got told it might take 48-72 hours for the result, so went home for a debate of “do we actually need to self-isolate given none of us actually seem to have symptoms?”

But as I drove home, something began to niggle. I realised the place had been deserted. There were six testing bays and we were the only ones there. The centre was in the borough of Oldham. Oldham has had one of the highest rates of Covid-19 in the country for weeks. They have been encouraging residents without symptoms to get tested. The centre we went to normally lets people in without an appointment. And yet it was deserted.

Just as we were arriving for our appointment, LBC’s Ben Kentish reported that there were no Covid tests available anywhere in any of the Top 10 Covid Hotspots. Oldham is one of those hotspots. No one could get a test if they needed one. The radio news began reporting that in Preston, another hotspot, the council was telling people not to even bother trying to book a test until the next day.

Whilst we were mid-way through our test, the staff were all called together for a quick chat, including the man dealing with us. What they were told, I don’t know. But now I can’t help but wonder if they were close to closing the doors. It did seem we were incredibly fortunate even to be there at all.

The problems clearly are not to do with test centre capacity. There were more staff than customers. Outside were crash barriers set up for people to queue, and we’d just breezed through them and straight into the building.

Here we were, standing right in the middle of one of the UK’s top 10 Covid hotspots, and there was no one else being tested. That seemed extremely wrong.

It was clear that the whole thing wasn’t working. Our testing capacity – the key to keeping this virus under control – was obviously broken.

Our Prime Minister keeps telling us that our testing system is “world beating”. Having experienced it first hand today, my immediate response is “world beating at what?” Incompetence? Uselessness? “World beating in making people want to throw expensive computers out of second floor windows?”

I don’t want a “world beating” system. I just want an adequate system that works. I want to know that if we have to go through this again (and I am very sure we will), that we can book a test quickly and easily. That we can get a test done at a convenient location that doesn’t require us to drive for half an hour. That we can get the results back quickly and easily.

It doesn’t need to be world beating. It just needs to work. Everyone should know exactly when to get a test. There should be no interpretation required. Everyone should know what a continuous cough actually means, and what temperature constitutes a fever. (The NHS website simply says “high”. Well, what is “high” when it’s at home?)

It shouldn’t need to take hours to book a test. It shouldn’t need you to fill out forms in triplicate, re-entering the same information over and over again. It shouldn’t make you want to scream. It should handle errors, and not ask you stupid questions like does a seven year old have a job?

We need all this stuff to just work because not everyone is as patient as me. How many people will see a lack of tests, or the hassle it takes to get one, and just give up? Just keep the children out of school and then say “yeah the test came back negative, all is good.” Or just ignore the symptoms because it’s too much hassle.

This stuff is important to get right. The government have had months to try and get this right. There was only one part of the process that worked today. Taking the test itself. The rest was a farce.