If you’ve tried to order lateral flow tests online in recent days, you’ve probably encountered the message: “Sorry, there are no more home delivery slots for these tests right now.” Unless, that is, you’re Dave McNally or one of his 16.3k Twitter followers.
In late December, he wrote a software application that would rapidly fill out the form to the point where it became clear if any tests were in stock – and then share that information via the Twitter account UK @LFT_alert.
The insights he has gained shed new light on why so many people have been struggling to order tests: batches are released only a couple of times a day, at specific (and unadvertised) times, and stock is often exhausted within the hour.
With government announcing the end of free Covid testing for most people in England on Friday, demand for LFTs (the end tests) means they are the lateral snapped up within minutes of becoming available.
“On Monday evening, it was only 45 minutes, and there was an afternoon session of 18 minutes – so, only an hour and three minutes in total,” said McNally. “People are going to be wasting their time on the site trying to order the damned things if they don’t know the time slot.
“That’s why I’ve made a point of posting quite regularly: ‘it’s always 8 o’clock pm. Tell people, because not everyone’s on Twitter’.”
He added: “I think demand has really picked up this week. I wouldn’t be surprised if on Thursday we see a five-minute window or something stupid like that.”
McNally, 46, from Bristol, started the project after struggling to get hold of any LFTs due to high demand post-Christmas. As a web developer and self-confessed “data-nerd”, it was relatively easy for him to write a program to automate the form-filling process, allowing him to get hold of tests as soon as they were back in stock.
The next day, he noticed someone on Twitter complaining of exactly the same problem: “I thought, it’s a bit selfish to have just done this for myself, when there’s probably thousands of people having exactly the same difficulties, and I could just create a Twitterbot [to share that information],” McNally said.
Launched on 31 December, the bot rapidly accumulated a loyal fanbase, as people shared and retweeted its vital information.