Last week FactCheck reported that significant numbers of people are having to make a round trip of more than 100 miles to get a coronavirus test.
This was revealed in a brief statistical release from the Department of Health and Social Care.
The release also contained more positive news, which the Prime Minister and Health Secretary had already announced in the House of Commons: the average distance people were having to travel had fallen in recent weeks.
But new, more detailed figures released today suggest that this is wrong: the average journey hasn’t got shorter at all. So what’s going on?
As we noted last week, both Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock had told Parliament that the average distance people had to go for a test had gone down, despite media stories about the online booking system sending people to testing centres hundreds of miles from home.
Initially, there was no evidence to back this up. Then the Department of Health and Social Care published these numbers, covering two weeks and showing a fall in the median distance – just as ministers had said:
But new, more detailed stats on average distance have been published today. They cover swab tests for the general population in England.
The average distance people are having to travel to booked tests has been almost completely flat in the last three weeks covered. The average journey was longer in September than in August and July. There is no evidence of any recent downward trend:
This is obviously a completely different story to the one suggested by the figures the government released last week.
As far as we know, the only difference is that the first release covered different days – counting from Tuesday to Tuesday, rather than Thursday to Thursday, as the rest of the official NHS Test and Trace statistics do.
There is no explanation given in last week’s release as to why the decision was taken to choose this unusual pattern of days.
Longest journeys going up
The new data shows that journeys are getting longer and longer for the worst-affected people. In the latest week we know about, 5 per cent of people who booked a test at a mobile testing unit were asked to travel 54.6 miles, up from 23.7 miles four weeks ago.
At regional test sites the worst-affected 5 per cent saw their journey length more than double in the latest four weeks covered to 48.2 miles.
Because the journeys given are only one-way and are calculated “as the crow flies”, that means a significant number of people are having to make round trips that comfortably exceed 100 miles.
How many people exactly? There is no official number, but the figures clearly imply that overall almost 20,000 people a week – so nearly 3,000 every day on average – must be having to make return journeys of more than 75 miles to get a coronavirus test.
The Department of Health and Social Care said today that 28 new local test sites were opening this week to help reduce average distances.