Just 10 per cent of the daily contact testing sites meant to end the "pingdemic" are up and running, it has emerged, with the Government confirming that the rollout might not be complete until the end of August.
After more than doubling the number of sites to 2,000 earlier this week to prevent widespread disruption to critical sectors, the Department of Health confirmed on Wednesday that just 200 were believed to have started testing.
The testing sites allow workers including supermarket depot staff, police officers, border force and train and lorry drivers to take daily lateral flow tests to avoid self-isolation, providing they test negative, if identified as a close contact of a positive Covid case.
It is hoped that 600 more sites will be ready by the end of the week – but the department has refused to provide a cast-iron guarantee, with the speed of the rollout dependent on firms taking up the offer.
On the remaining 1,200, which were allocated on Monday, the Government has said only that it expects them to be in operation by the end of August.
That suggests many may still not be fully operational by Aug 16, when self-isolation rules for double vaccinated people are due to be relaxed, in turn calling into question the benefit of continuing the rollout of sites beyond this date.
The timetable has been described as "absurd" by senior Tory MPs and prompted fresh calls for Boris Johnson to bring forward the date for relaxing self-isolation rules for the fully vaccinated.
Government sources defended the speed of the operation, insisting it was logistically impossible to create thousands of testing sites overnight. They pointed out that, after Aug 16, they would ensure that critical workers who had not been fully vaccinated could continue to stay in work by using lateral flow tests.
On Wednesday, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, confirmed that, as part of the relaxation on Aug 16, families will not have to self-isolate if someone in their household tests positive unless they have symptoms.
But Richard Walker, the managing director of the supermarket chain Iceland, said the process of signing up to testing sites was "really bureaucratic" and suggested the company could simply wait until Aug 16.
"There's a lot of red tape in getting these testing centres set up – it's a nightmare. So with three weeks to go, in my view it's not worth the effort," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
John Foster, the director of policy at the Confederation of British Industry, told The Telegraph: "The simplest way to end the pingdemic is by bringing forward the date by which those that have been double jabbed no longer have to self-isolate if not infectious.
"August 16 looks a long way away to any business that is seeing their staff asked to self-isolate, left, right and centre.
"The daily contact testing pilots have been effective but now, with the scheme rightly being expanded, there must be greater urgency to set up the necessary testing sites."
Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, said: "Ministers now need to ruthlessly interrogate plans to check that they still make sense against their policy intent.
"Yet again, we see that ending contact tracing is the litmus test of learning to live with the virus like we live with flu. The Government should just bring forward the date from August 16."