On Friday the government announced an extension of its beleaguered Test and Trace system. (bear with me, this isn't going where you think)
If you think you have coronavirus symptoms it's important to get tested, and as soon as possible, otherwise a positive result can't successfully affect the behaviour of others. Initially the only way to get tested was to go to a drive-in centre, which was useless if you didn't have a car (and might have been hours away even if you did). Later mobile testing units were established which could park up in a wider variety of locations as and when required, but they still required a vehicle.
Matt Hancock's latest press release announces six new ‘walk through’ testing sites offering appointments to people irrespective of personal transport. These are located "in Newcastle, Rochdale, Leeds, Brent, Newham and Slough, with Slough being the first hybrid drive and walk-through site." They'll be very useful, but only if you live close enough to get there without venturing onto public transport and spreading the virus further. The precise location of each site is only divulged once you've registered, but I guess I live within walking distance of the Newham site, wherever it is.
But there's more. Back in May the government introduced 'home tests', controversially including them in their daily testing data. These self-swab kits were sent out by courier, because time is of the essence, and once completed needed to be returned the same way. As anyone who's waited in for a courier delivery knows, this wasn't always an efficient and timely process.
As of this week the Royal Mail is getting in on the act, which means you'll be able pop your completed test into a postbox rather than faffing around returning it by courier. Precautions will be taken. The return packaging is WHO Category B-compliant with a conspicuous purple label, and postal workers will retrieve these parcels by sealing them inside a plastic bag. The biggest problem is getting them back on time. Forty years ago the Royal Mail was geared up for frequent and timely collection, whereas post-privatisation efficiencies have slimmed down the service to a sporadic shadow.
Specifically in 2014 Royal Mail introduced their Collection on Delivery initiative, which allowed postal workers to collect mail from lesser-used postboxes during their rounds. This could mean that the only collection of the day at your local box was as early as 9am on weekdays or 7am on Saturdays. Fabulous as a cost-cutting measure, but lousy if it's mid-morning and you need a package to be somewhere by tomorrow. Customers have had to make do with sub-standard next-day delivery ever since.
But suddenly the government needs your sample back tomorrow... which is why they've just announced the introduction of priority postboxes.
This is the sticker to look out for. It hasn't yet appeared on my closest postbox, outside Bow Post Office, but it should be there by Friday. Interestingly you can't post your sample at the Post Office counter itself, it has to go in the box outside. But only about 30% of the UK's postboxes are designated priority postboxes, so you may not be so geographically fortunate.
A further innovation is that the Royal Mail website can now be used to identify where your nearest priority postbox is. It never used to have an online postbox location service, however useful that might have been, but suddenly it's a national health priority and hey presto it appears. Other online postboxlocation services sprang up years ago using publicly available data but they're not always up-to-date and accurate. Even the otherwise excellent postboxes.dracos.co.uk from Matthew Somerville, being over ten years old, has yet to notice that Bow's Post Office and its attendant post box have shifted 400ft across Bow Road.
This map is my best attempt to show, in red, where Bow's priority postboxes are.
Every marker represents one postbox, I hope, and if it's black it doesn't appear on the priority postbox list. I'm surprised by quite how high the red:black ratio is, given that only 30% of postboxes nationwide are supposed to be priority. Bow seems to be scoring a lot closer to 80%. Maybe that's a benefit of living somewhere with a densely-packed population, or maybe we're a health priority area, or maybe both. Aside: The UK has approximately 115,000 postboxes. Aside: Royal Mail has to provide a postbox "within half a mile (805 metres) of the premises of not less than 98% of users of postal services".
I thought I'd also check somewhere more typically suburban. This is Croxley Green near Watford.
Croxley's priority postbox proportion is 31%, which is almost spot on. Only five of its 16 postboxes will be getting the priority sticker, including two outside Post Offices, one on the main shopping parade and two included to maintain geographical spread. At least nobody should have to walk more than a mile to get to one... which when you've got potential symptoms is undoubtedly a good thing. Aside: Both these maps are to the same scale, each approximately two miles across.
A slight problem is that it's Sunday today, so even a priority postbox has no collections, so if you have a coronavirus test to post back you're stuffed. So try not to catch the virus today, then develop symptoms in five days time and request a test on Friday which is delivered on Saturday, because you may not be able to send it back in time.
Alternatively if you just want to drop Auntie Glenda's birthday card into a COVID-free postbox, hunt for one without an NHS sticker. Priorities vary.