Surging demand at Covid testing clinics across Australia has led to waiting times of up to five days for results, with travellers now worried they won’t get a negative result in time to travel across state borders for Christmas.
Waiting times in Victoria have averaged between 40 minutes and an hour during the past week, while a busy ACT site reached capacity by 9.30am on Monday.
A negative Covid test is currently mandatory to enter Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia if arriving from an area with community transmission, while travellers to the Northern Territory are required to have a PCR test within 72 hours of arrival.
David Wynnum is crossing his fingers he’ll receive his test result in time to fly to Brisbane on Wednesday afternoon. Wynnum was in line for two hours at Melbourne’s Sandringham hospital on Monday morning and was advised it would be a 48-hour wait to receive his result.
“Most people looked like they were getting tested for interstate travel,” he said. “It’ll get interesting if my result isn’t back by boarding time.”
Many people who spoke to Guardian Australia received their test results within a reasonable timeframe, but Nicolas Ronsmans had just passed the five-day mark.
Ronsmans was tested on Wednesday at the Royal Prince Alfred hospital in Sydney after a positive Covid case was detected at his workplace and he was listed as a casual contact. As of Monday he was “still waiting”.
“Initially it was meant to be 48 hours max, then they updated it to be 72 hours, to finally tell me, when I phoned the RPA dispatch, they said that it could take up to five days.
“There’s no phone number you can call if the results haven’t come back yet. Everything and everyone will redirect you to the SMS number with automated replies as well as a web version of the same service.”
Ronsmans said the most frustrating aspect was the “day-to-day uncertainty” forcing him to continually cancel plans. “If I were positive I could at least prepare and unplan for the next two weeks,” he said.
Julia Thomas had passed 72 hours without a result after flying home from Sweden on Thursday evening. She was tested at St Ives Showground north of Sydney on Friday morning.
“My partner got her results at 2am this morning,” she said on Monday. “After 40 minutes on hold to the pathology hotline, apparently mine has been separated into another batch and I’m unlikely to get results until this evening, 80 hours after the test.”
Thomas was almost due for her second mandatory test and couldn’t tell from NSW guidelines whether it would still be required if she hadn’t received her initial result.
From Tuesday, the 72-hour isolation requirement will be dropped for new international arrivals into NSW and Victoria, but a negative test is still required.
“If my waiting times are normal, the isolation period will be longer than the original 72 hours, and my guess is that most new arrivals won’t have planned a living situation where you can isolate for that long,” Thomas said.
Sian Cain was in the same boat. She queued at Haymarket for two and a half hours after landing in Sydney from overseas and said some were put off by long lines.
“We did have some people come up to ask how long we’d been waiting and then say they weren’t going to bother,” she said.
“Having done PCR tests in the UK for the past couple years, it was a bit of a shock. The queue was well managed but it was insane. There were only two women doing tests – there were easily 200 people in the queue at 8.30am and it just got longer.”
Cain still hadn’t received her test results 48 hours later and said she’d already been hung up on once due to the volume of calls.
NSW Health in a statement on Monday evening thanked the public for “their incredible response in coming out for testing”.
The department said it was monitoring demand and had the capacity “to extend opening hours, introduce additional drive-through sites and establish extra pop-up clinics should the need arise”.
In the ACT, the Mitchell testing site had reached capacity by 9.30am on Monday and wait times were exceeding two hours for every testing centre by the afternoon.
An ACT Health spokesperson said the department would continue to monitor demand across its testing network and would “consider extended hours where possible”. “While some of our testing sites are very busy at certain times, there is still testing capacity available across our network,” they said.
In Melbourne, there have been calls to reopen closed testing centres due to the surge in demand driven by positive cases, a rise in close contacts and increased travel.
Data shows 71,491 tests were processed on Sunday. During the past week, the average waiting time in Victoria has been between 40 minutes and an hour, with shorter wait times in the afternoons.
Queues around the block had already gathered at the Bourke Street testing site on Monday morning where waiting times were already several hours. Tim Sweeney said he visited three different testing sites in the CBD over the weekend and all were suspended because of high demand.
Elise Thomas waited almost seven hours at St Vincent’s testing site on Friday, much of it queueing in full sun on a 32C day. “Nightmare,” she said.
A spokesperson from the Victorian health department said testing remained “vital” and reached a record high last week.
“We’ve increased testing capacity by 55% since October, with more than 260 sites operating across the state, including six new mass-testing centres and additional lanes at existing drive-through sites,” they said.
“We know the morning is the busiest time for testing, which is why we’ve opened sites earlier to cater for the morning peak.”