Dame Donna Kinnair, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said staff suffering from symptoms of Covid-19 were sometimes driving up to two hours to testing stations, only to be told to come back another time if they have not booked a time slot.
Her comments came as NHS staff told The Independent that the system was “not ready for widespread testing”, with one doctor told to drive 90 miles to get tested while others unable to attend if they do not own a car.
The government has faced sustained criticism over the pace of testing, but Downing Street blamed “lack of demand, not lack of capacity” after recent figures revealed less than half of the UK’s Covid-19 testing capacity had been used.
Dame Donna told the Commons Health Committee that access to testing for NHS was “not quite clear”, adding: “What I’m hearing from the frontline is nurses are sometimes driving two hours, feeling very unwell with possible symptoms of coronavirus and drive to a testing station.
“Sometimes, if you haven’t got an appointment you’re turned away, only to be told to come back another time.
“So we need some really clear direction of how we can access testing, both in the NHS but more so for social care because they don’t have the same infrastructure as the NHS.”
One doctor in the north west of England said they were told to drive a 90 miles round trip to Haydock racecourse to get tested when they were seriously ill.
They told The Independent: “I was unable to do it. Requested it on Friday, tested Tuesday which put me out of the recommended testing period. I now cannot access my results.
“The system is not ready for widespread testing.
“The timely access to tests and distance required to travel is widespread. The advice is to test between day 1-3 (up to day 5). You have to be referred before 11 and they dont take referrals over the weekend. So that makes being tested between day 1-3 quite hard.
“Samples can take up to five days to be processed.”
In London, NHS staff are unable to get tested unless they drive themselves to a test centre but many staff in London do not own a car.
Guidance sent to staff from Barts Health Trust said staff could only get tested if they drove themselves and could not use a taxi.
One clinician from a central London hospital said: “I can see the practical reasons for only testing staff who have access to cars but this limits myself and numerous other colleagues from accessing these tests that would allow us to return to work quickly and safely.”
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, later told the committee that more than 50,000 NHS workers have now been tested for coronavirus.
Asked whether there was estimate for how many staff have been infected, he added: “No I don’t. What I have is an estimate of the proportion who are off work because they either have suspected Covid-19 or a household member does, which is a little over 8 per cent.
“And obviously with the expansion of testing we hope to be able to get that figure down.”
Meanwhile, a student doctor working as a swab tester said the scaled-up capacity at his centre in Milton Keynes was “being wasted”.
Gianmarco Raddi, a molecular biologist at Cambridge University, wrote in The Guardian: “Our shifts were meant to be excruciating 12-hour marathons. In reality, they are rather more like laid-back morning jogs.
“Dozens of academics and laboratory personnel from all over the UK languish in a hotel with nothing to do.
“Millions of pounds of equipment borrowed from universities and companies rests silently in the evening hours, when the noise of our collective toil should be deafening.”