Bugs in online booking system add to UK’s Covid-19 testing crisis

The website for booking coronavirus tests is struggling to cope with the number of requests, adding more problems to those already accrued by the NHS test-and-trace scheme.

People in the UK who attempt to book a test for Covid-19 online are directed – once they have passed screening questions to ensure they are entitled to the test – to a purpose-built website where they can theoretically book either a home test kit or a walk-through or drive-through test. However, in practice, an increasing number of users are reporting errors on the site itself that prevent them from even attempting to book a test.

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Some visitors receive a message that warns “this service is currently very busy”, and advises them that “more tests should be available later”. There are no further options on that screen.

Other visitors have reported a more pernicious error. If the website initially loads correctly, users can switch between drive-through and walk-through tests. But if it fails during the switching, then no error message will be displayed to users; they will instead simply be told that no tests are available. However, the error message can be seen using tools for web developers.

Since the testing was launched in April, kits have been in short supply and often anyone attempting to book a home test is told they are entirely unavailable.

With drive-through tests also in short supply, even when the website to book them is working as intended, some families have been advised that they can beat the system by booking tests hundreds of miles away.

“We got to the test centre and the site staff asked: ‘How many tests do you want?'” Ellie Bell, from south-west London, told the Guardian on Monday. “They got us to get a QR code by booking a test in Aberdeen – thus fabricating a postcode to trick the system – and then used those codes to push our tests through. Negative test results arrived the next morning.”

By Wednesday that loophole had been closed by the government, with guidance advising test centre staff to no longer accept QR codes from other centres. The new guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care issued to test sites has banned staff from “processing appointments allocated at different sites”, according to reports.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS Test and Trace is providing tests at an unprecedented scale – 200,000 a day on average over the last week – with the vast majority of people getting tested within six miles of their home.

“But there has been a spike in demand in recent weeks and the message is clear – only people with symptoms should be requesting a test.

“If someone turns up with the wrong QR code for a site, they will be turned away from the site and advised to go to the correct site they booked on. People who have booked a valid appointment at a testing site will receive a test.”

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