As people across the UK prepare to ring in the new year, one thing that will be missing for many is a Covid lateral flow test.
Town-centre pharmacies’ stocks have been wiped out as people seek assurance before attending parties or meeting vulnerable relatives.
While it’s not unusual for shopping centres to be busy between Christmas and new year, with shoppers hitting the sales and enjoying festive markets, the most sought-after products are proving to be the tests.
On Thursday the Guardian visited four chemists in Kingston upon Thames, a busy shopping hub in south-west London, and found that three were out of stock and the fourth had one kit left.
Staff advised customers to come back tomorrow, with test kits also unavailable to order online. The NHS website allows users to search for tests by postcode but none of the recommended pharmacies in Kingston upon Thames had any in stock.
Boxes of 20 LFTs were available at a council-run testing facility. Some shoppers told the Guardian it was the only place they had been able to pick up tests.
“I’ve tried three different pharmacies in the high street where I live over the past couple of weeks and they’ve been all out,” said Sally Arnold, from Surbiton. “It’s also going to be make it tricky for people going back to work if you can’t get hold of them, as we have to go in to the office.”
Her friend Lisa Sanders, also from Surbiton, said: “I ordered some about a week ago and I’m still waiting for them to be delivered – every time I look on the app it says ‘sorry, no deliveries’.
“I think people are trying to be responsible and to do the right thing but if you can’t get hold of tests then what can you do? I was lucky, I saw my sister over Christmas in a different part of the country and she is able to get them and gave me a box, but you just can’t get them anywhere round here.”
A member of staff at the facility, who wished to remain anonymous, said LFTs had been available at the testing site throughout the year but footfall had “shot up” since the Omicron variant led to a sharp rise in recorded cases.
Ministers have been urging people to test before socialising, and the surge in demand has outstripped supply.
Beverley Bairstow, from Kingston, said she had come straight to the council facility after hearing about shortages at pharmacies closer to where she lives.
She said: “I didn’t even bother trying anywhere else because I heard they haven’t got them. We try to keep some in the house but now we have run out and were told our local chemist doesn’t have any left. We did also try online but there weren’t any available either. When we saw there were some here, we thought: great, at last.”
Francesca Rowland said she had stocked up on tests for friends and family as well as herself. “I haven’t been able to get any tests before today, and because I work in a school I need to be doing them every day,” she said. “It’s not been easy because we can’t order online now, but luckily I knew this was here.”
Lutz Amechi, from Kingston, said: “My belief is the only way we will get through this is constant, frequent testing, so we test every second day at home.”