‘I had to create a bot just to get a coronavirus test online’

Linda J. Dodson

A desperate father, frustrated by the government’s coronavirus website, was forced to create an automated bot to get Covid-19 tests for his family.

Craig Mason, 34, from Plymouth created the tool after spending more than five days refreshing the testing website “at least 200 to 300 times.”

The bot works by contacting the test centre database every few minutes, allowing it to find out how many tests are available, where they can be found and on which dates.

The system then sends an alert to Mr Mason’s phone, letting him know that he should log on to book a test nearby.

 “All I did was monitor the requests to the server to identify which request was checking for test site availability,” said Mr Mason. “Once some test centres were available, the bot would check the data, see if any were closer than 75 miles and, if so, use a service to send me a push notification to my phone.”

The technology was built within an hour, and Mr Mason started running it at midday. At 7pm, his phone pinged him to say there was a test in Torquay, which he was able to book.

Similar systems were created by tech-savvy customers during the initial weeks of lockdown when a demand in supermarket delivery slots led to shortages online.  

However, many have complained that the government’s online coronavirus test booking system has suffered far greater problems than just coping with high demand.

One site user took to Twitter to say that he had found a coding error which caused the online portal to show “no test sites found” whenever he attempted to choose between a walk-through or drive-through test. The website’s code revealed that it was failing to connect with the appointments system, and so was unable to check whether any sites were available.

Munira Wilson, the Lib Dem MP for Twickenham, last week said that some of her constituents had been told to put a Scottish postcode into the site to get a QR code that would work locally. The government says it has now closed the loophole.

Another issue has been people turning up to test sites without a QR code because they didn’t receive a confirmation email.

‘The problems with the testing site are due to basic coding errors,” said Mr Mason, who runs a web development company Stasis Media. “My work has shut down, my daughter is off school, and it’s taken over a week to figure out if we actually have it.”

“It would take whoever is building this issue half an hour to fix it, it really would, and the problems would go away.”

The Department of Health and Social Care did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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