The restrictions on testing will only be enforced if the coronavirus crisis deepens but thousands of people are already finding it impossible to book a test in some of the country’s worst-affected areas.
Health officials have drawn up a priority list which suggests routine testing would no longer be available to all members of the public as the system struggles to cope with a huge increase in demand.
A Government source told the Daily Telegraph: “We are not yet at the stage of restricting access to tests for those people who have symptoms, and it is not something we want to do.
“Around a quarter of people who come for tests at the moment aren’t eligible because they are asymptomatic so, before we do anything, we really want to deter this group.
“If we can do that while we are increasing capacity for tests we may not need to restrict tests for anyone with symptoms.
“But at the moment we are considering the options for what to do further down the road if it comes to that.”
Boris Johnson has admitted there is not enough capacity in the testing system after demand “massively accelerated” in recent weeks.
The Prime Minister told senior MPs at the Liaison Committee: “We don’t have enough testing capacity now because, in an ideal world, I would like to test absolutely everybody that wants a test immediately.”
He said the virus was spreading from the young to the more vulnerable elderly, with the rate of cases among the over-80s doubling in just days – and warned that would “lead to mortality”.
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Baroness Dido Harding, who is interim executive chairwoman of the National Institute for Health Protection and oversees the NHS Test and Trace system, insisted the system was “working” despite key targets being missed and the number of close contacts being reached falling to a record low.
Tests were not available for people with coronavirus symptoms in some of England’s worst affected areas yesterday.
Slots were only being offered in one of the 10 local authorities with the highest COVID-19 infection rates, as the testing system struggles to cope with soaring demand.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said those with a postcode in areas with the highest rates of COVID-19 should be given priority when booking a test.
He said: “On testing, we do need the Government to prioritise areas with the highest numbers of cases for bookings through the national system.”
NHS Providers, which represents NHS trust leaders, expressed concerns that shortages were leading to an increase in people attending accident and emergency units requesting a test.
Deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said hospitals in Bolton, Alder Hey and Plymouth had all publicly announced that tests were unavailable in their emergency departments.