For several weeks now, the media have been running countless stories about people trying to book a slot at a local coronavirus testing centre, only to be asked to travel hundreds of miles.
It’s been hard to pin down how widespread the problem is, and ministers have sought to reassure the public that the average distance people are having to drive to get a test is fairly small.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons: ”Just in the last week, the average distance that people have had to go for a test has come down from 6 or 7 miles to 5 miles.”
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, and others in government have also quoted similar statistics.
Until yesterday, the Department of Health and Social Care didn’t publish any figures on the distance travelled for tests, so we couldn’t FactCheck what ministers were saying. The UK government has now finally put some statistics out, which cover England only.
On this evidence, it’s right to say that the median distance travelled (that’s the statistical mid-point of the distance between the neighbourhoods where people live and the testing sites they visit) was 6.4 miles between September 1 and 7, and that this average distance fell to 5.8 miles the following week.
This sounds like good news, and it’s not surprising that the Prime Minister focused on this positive figure in parliament.
But there’s another important number he didn’t mention: what kind of distances are people being asked to drive in the worst cases?
The figures show that the 10 per cent of people who had to travel furthest made journeys of 22.6 miles or more between September 1 and 7. This figure rose to 27.8 miles in the following week.
In the most extreme cases, 5 per cent of people were having to travel 32.6 miles or more, rising to to 47.3 miles in the latest week we know about.
This figure is only for a one-way journey, and it’s calculated in “a straight line as the crow flies”.
So we can say that 5 per cent of people faced a round-trip of almost 100 miles as the crow flies in the latest week for which we have data. Realistically, thinking about twists and turns in the road, the real drive would be longer.
How many people are we talking about? The number isn’t given in this data release, but we know from other government figures that just over 360,000 people were tested at regional, local and mobile test facilities under pillar 2 of the testing system (the people covered by the new data release) in the latest week we know about, up from 319,000 the week before.
We can’t be completely accurate because the dates covered by various stats don’t quite match up, and the distances are counted for people who book a test and fail to show up.
But we can come up with a back-of-envelope estimate that around 15,000 to 20,000 people a week (around 2,000 to 3,000 a day) are booking tests that involve a round trip of around 100 miles.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman told FactCheck:
“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 6 miles of their home.
“There has been a spike in demand in recent weeks and the message is clear – only people with symptoms should be requesting a test.
“We’re doing everything possible to overcome this challenge – including by bringing in new labs that can process tens of thousands of tests a day, opening new test sites, and trialling new rapid tests that will give results on the spot.
“As we expand capacity further, we will continue to work around the clock to make sure that everyone who needs a test can get one.”
Ministers have correctly said that the average journey length for people booking Covid-19 tests in England has fallen to less than 6 miles.
But they have picked out the positive statistic – that the median distance fell – while failing to mention the less flattering one: that the distance people have to travel has gone up in the most extreme cases.
Given the large numbers of people who are accessing coronavirus tests at the moment, this means that significant numbers of people – perhaps several thousand a day – are booking tests that require a return journey of about 100 miles or more.