We know about the UK’s COVID testing problems – here’s how it’s going in other European countries
Written by Rother Radio News on 28/09/2020
The UK’s COVID-19 testing capability has come in for major criticism, with some having to wait and travel long distances to find out if they have the virus.
But how is the rest of Europe faring?
Sky News spoke to epidemiologists in other nations to see how things are.
But the country has not been without its own problems.
German epidemiologist Timo Ulrichs told Sky News: “Currently we are in a good situation, we have increased our test capacity and we have a lot of laboratories available.
“Right at the end of the summer, we were in a bit of chaos when many people came back from vacation and the government promised to offer tests to everyone coming back.
“Many people didn’t receive results in time and the testing system was mismanaged. After this, the government changed its policy and didn’t offer tests like this anymore.
“There is a growing consensus that we need to focus more on hotspots and contact tracing.”
He said there were three criteria for someone to get a COVID-19 (PCR) test in Germany.
“You have COVID-19 symptoms, you returned from high-risk regions or countries, and you had close contact with a positive case,” he said.
“Currently, if you are not in one of these categories you cannot get a test”.
He said those who fit into at least one of those categories usually get a test quickly and receive a result between 24 hours and two days.
But Mr Ulrichs warned there was a need to step up capacity, saying: “Even if now we have a good laboratory and testing capacity, we need to prepare for an increase in cases and thus increase even more these two capacities.
“Then we might need to consider another testing strategy such as using antigen testing that provide results quicker.”
France has seen a major spike in cases in recent weeks, with the southern city of Marseille particularly badly affected.
When Sky News filmed there last week, all of the testing centres and hospitals were struggling to cope.
Dr Martin Blachier, who specialises in public health, said: “In France the testing capacity is currently overwhelmed and workers in laboratories are exhausted as they feel they are overworked.
“This is due to a limited laboratory capacity and poor organisation of testing.”
He said everyone who wants a COVID-19 test in France can get it for free by queuing in front of a centre with a self-declaration form, but that the system is not working efficiently.
“The government said there should be prioritisation for people with symptoms but in reality there is no prioritisation and people who want to get tested coming back from holiday are waiting together with people with symptoms,” he said.
“This causes issues as there are instances in which people write incorrect self-declaration forms [so they are] prioritised.
“We also do tests through contact tracing, meaning that when a person is positive they try to remember previous contacts and invite people to get a test.”
He says there are always long queues in front of test centres, with people forced to wait between three to four hours, and the result can take up to four days in some cities – and as long as 10 in others.
The country needs much more laboratory capacity, he adds, along with communication telling people: “Don’t do a test if you don’t have symptoms and leave the tests to those who have symptoms.
“There is no clear communication in France.”
To improve things, he says: “I would suggest using antigen tests to test more people and speed up the procedure and lower the cost of testing.”
France is considering using that approach in October.
Spain – particularly the capital Madrid – has been hit hard with COVID-19 cases recently.
Sky News spoke to epidemiologist Pedro Gullon, who is a member of the Sociedad Espanola de Epidemiología (SEE)
He said testing had improved, but that demand was putting real pressure on the system.
“The testing system has been working well in the last months in Spain,” he said.
“However, in some regions, where the demand for COVID tests has increased due to increased transmission – more contacts and more possible cases – testing capacity is closer to its highest capacity.”
He says the big issue at the moment is tracing the contacts of known positive cases. The way the health care system is structured in Spain makes that more difficult.
“When someone has symptoms, you can go to your primary health care physicians or an emergency room at hospitals, where you can get a COVID test,” he said.
“Also, close contacts of confirmed cases are contacted by the contact tracers to get a test.
“However, due to the decentralised nature of the Spanish health care system and the different regional impact of this new wave, some regions are having problems testing close contacts of confirmed cases.”
And there is a big difference between regions in terms of waiting times for a test.
In some parts it is 24 hours. But in other areas, where the spread of the virus has increased in recent weeks, it can be between 48 and 72 hours.
To improve the situation going forward, he says: “There is a need to hire more people for contact tracing, especially in regions where transmission is higher.
“With the appropriate contact tracing, we can isolate active cases and put in quarantine all close contacts.”
Italy, which was hit hardest by COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, has benefited in terms of testing from good public health infrastructure in many areas.
Dr Stefano Sella, a researcher in infectious diseases, said: “The situation in Italy is quite good, in terms of testing capacity, available laboratories and contact tracing.
“This is mainly due to good public health infrastructure, which is well organised at a regional and more local level.
“We are currently doing many PCR tests, including to asymptomatic people, which is better than before when we were only testing symptomatic patients or people who had close contact to a positive case.
“Indeed, we now know most of the cases are asymptomatic.”
He said COVID-19 tests were usually prescribed by a GP.
Dr Sella said: “Recently we have allowed both symptomatic and asympomatic people that have been in high-risk situations to get a test as well, for example, people who have been in large gatherings.
“The test will then be done in the closest regional centre or at home by a specific team. In addition, we do PCR tests to everyone hospitalised.
“Recently, we have done some antigen tests in airports to people coming from countries with high-infection rates, such as Greece and Croatia.”
But he says that while it is possible to get a test quite quickly at a centre or in your home, the wait time for results varies significantly from region to region
“On average, you get a result for a PCR test in 48 hours,” he said.
“If you are in hospital, you get the results in less than two hours. With antigen tests, you get a result in 30 minutes.”
He said there needed to be more laboratory capacity in Italy to deal with an increase in infections and to identify those who have had the virus.
“We should use even more the antigen tests in addition to the standard PCR tests,” he said.
“In fact, even though these tests are not perfect, they can detect people with a high viral load, the so-called ‘superspreaders’, which are critical in the spread of the virus.”
COVID-19 is presenting challenges for health systems across the whole of Europe – challenges which are unlikely to ease anytime soon.
And there is likely to be much that different nations can learn from the experience of others.
© Sky News 2020