When historians come to write the story on the global pandemic, there will be plenty of odd footnotes to the two years of drudgery, misery and unnecessary death that we’ve endured. One of them will be the way that a simple requirement, like mass testing of the population to track the prevalence of the spread of Covid-19, became nearly impossible thanks to supply shortages.
But one Twitter account, UK @LFT_alert, has been helping Britons stay safe and protect others by knowing whether they’re Covid-positive before seeing family and friends, by letting them know when stocks of lateral flow tests are ready to cop through the government’s website.
The shortage of available tests has been one of the embarrassments of the pandemic – and the frustration that people feel in being unable to access a pack of seven free tests is something most us have felt at some point since the government launched its mass testing programme in April 2021. It’s a frustration that Dave McNally, 49, also felt when shortages were at their most acute between Christmas 2021 and New Year 2022.
McNally is a computer programmer and self-professed “data nerd”. “It was out of personal frustration that I set up the bot,” he says in a rare interview. He had followed in the footsteps of many Brits, patiently filling out his details on the government’s online booking form for lateral flow tests, only to reach the end and find out that there were none available. To save some time, he wrote a bot that would test the system, filling out the data quickly in order to reach the end of the process – when the check of stocks took place – more efficiently and before filling in the entire form.
“I thought I might as well spend the two hours it took me to write something that would check this, and make it useful for a lot of people,” he says. He set up the Twitter account in early 2022 – co-opting a prior account he had used for something else – and let it run wild.
Things started small, but grew quickly. Now, 12,000 people follow the bot, which tweets when a new batch of tests are available to order through the government website. “It’s become a bit like PlayStation availability,” says McNally. The bot’s tweets have been a lifeline for many people, and McNally isn’t surprised that the account took off in popularity. “I know a lot of people who have been taking it very seriously, doing testing like we were told,” he says. “It just seemed like a useful tool, and lots of people thought the same too.”
The account has now gained cult-like status, with users joking that their searches for games consoles and high-level graphics cards were simply preparation for finding available lateral flow tests. It typified the whole pandemic for Sayem Ahmed, a journalist who found @LFT_alert a must-follow at the height of the test shortage. “Over the pandemic, anything of note with some sort of relative hype just sold out immediately,” he says. “When the guys who run bots and hoover up sneakers cottoned onto this with graphics cards used in crypto mining, something like the RTX 3080 sold out in seconds.”
Ahmed expected that he’d have to sign up to Discord servers or follow Twitter accounts for those big-ticket items. “But I never really imagined that I’d have to do the same just to get a Covid test,” he says.
The market conditions usually reserved for graphics cards and PS5s repeated itself with testing: “low supply and high demand meant that whenever I wanted to get one, they were always ‘unavailable for delivery’,” Ahmed says. “Frustratingly, it’d tell you this at the end of the process, [when I’d] put all my data into the government website.” The account became a must-visit for Ahmed. “A couple months on, and it’s the only Twitter account that I have notifications on for, and I generally only order them in moderation, even if I know they might be available,” he says. “Honestly, if I was the average person trying to get a pack of tests and didn’t know about it, I’d be tearing my hair out.”
That frustration is one McNally shares, with the bot’s creator believing there shouldn’t be a need for @LFT_alert. “No one needs to be following a Twitter bot to order LFTs,” he laughs. “It’s just ridiculous that this needs to exist.”
His bot managed to uncover patterns for when tests were released to the public, which allowed him to advise those struggling to secure tests for themselves and family when to log on to get the best chance of success – which was just after 7am and 8pm, on any given day.
McNally’s bot’s days are numbered, though. The English government announced on 21st February it would be ending free access to lateral flow tests for everyone other than over-75s and those with weakened immune systems on 1st April – though Portsmouth City Council has said it will continue to offer tests until the end of June independently. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations have different dates, too: Scotland is bringing an end to tests on 18th April, Wales is promising free tests until June, and Northern Ireland is uncertain when it will end its policy.
McNally jokes that he may keep the bot running in order to check on Scotland’s test levels – but they rarely run out, unlike the English stocks. But he largely just wishes that the bot didn’t need to exist in the first place, and that people could have access to free tests whenever they wanted – or at least didn’t have to go through the entire process of form filling to be told there were none going. “The stock thing needed to [happen] at the beginning of the process,” he says when asked how the UK government could have done things better.