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Coronavirus: Ministers under pressure after testing strategy revelations

Investigation by The Independent prompts calls to act before second wave of Covid-19

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Monday 29 June 2020 20:12 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

The government has been urged to change its approach to coronavirus testing before it is too late after The Independent exposed serious concerns over the laboratory network set up in response to the outbreak.

The investigation, funded by The Independent’s Supporter Programme, found that decisions were taken too slowly and the three centralised laboratories were beset with delays and problems that meant they were not fully operational until the peak of the outbreak had already passed.

Now NHS leaders and politicians from every major party are calling for action before a second wave of Covid-19 begins.

It comes as the government refuses to say whether tests for suspected Covid-19 patients are being processed within 24 hours – a timeframe that is crucial to allowing the NHS test and trace system to operate effectively.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is the current chair of the Health Select Committee, said The Independent’s “vitally important investigation” showed what he called the “critical importance of speed in turning around test results – and that the centralised structures set up were initially too cumbersome to deliver this reliably”.

He added: “Today is a vitally important day because the last day of June is when the prime minister promised all test results bar postal ones would be turned around in 24 hours. We will soon find out if those problems have been resolved in time to deal with any second wave.”

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said the story “exposes the fundamental failings at the heart of the government’s response to Covid-19”.

“The tragic reality is that the government has been too slow on PPE [personal protective equipment] for health and care staff, too slow on testing and now too slow on putting in place a functional test and trace regime,” he added.

“It is clear that the early warnings on testing were simply brushed aside, and existing expertise in the NHS and university sectors was not fully utilised.

“We must have an effective strategy to test, trace and isolate people to enable society to reopen safely. Labour has called for testing to be expanded further beyond those who are symptomatic and this must be a priority in the months and weeks ahead.”

The three Lighthouse laboratories – based in Glasgow, Milton Keynes, and Alderley Park in Cheshire – were set up with volunteer scientists and lab technicians to carry out mass testing. The labs are not accredited to UK lab standards and faced weeks of delays in getting up and running.

The government is now considering setting up new labs in each of the seven NHS regions across England, but it is not yet clear who will operate them.

Professor Jo Martin, president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said: “We know there have been concerns with the existing Lighthouse laboratories. We have called for any contracts for laboratory services to include specific requirements for clinical leadership, participation in national external quality assurance, end-to-end data connectivity and sharing. It is vital that any safety incidents or issues are reported into NHS systems and [that] there is transparency that aids this process.

“As we move through the next phase of the Covid-19 epidemic, we must ensure that we have a robust testing regime in place, with health service laboratories taking a central role. NHS laboratory services are accredited to national standards and have already expanded capacity and adapted the ways they work during the coronavirus outbreak.”

She added: “Any testing programme must be clear as to its purpose, and the tests chosen appropriately. Problems in testing result in problems with care and with control of this virus.”

The NHS Confederation, which represents more than 500 healthcare organisations, said the labs had played a key role in expanding testing capacity, but its chief executive, Niall Dickson, added: “There were delays in rolling them out and more should have been done to use public health expertise across the NHS and local authorities.

“We need certainty that anyone, including staff, can access testing when and where they need it, and that results will be returned without delay. This is vital if we are to contain the spread of the disease. The pressure on our members is immense as the NHS restarts patient services, but it also has to be prepared for local outbreaks or, worse, a second wave.

“The test and trace programme is in its infancy. We know the contact tracers still cannot reach a significant proportion of those who may have the virus – this is the big risk now.”

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who is due to chair a new cross-party group calling for an urgent inquiry into the government’s handling of the outbreak, said: “There are serious questions to be answered over the government’s failure to introduce an effective testing strategy in time. This investigation suggests there has been an over-reliance on new large-scale private labs, and that opportunities have been missed to mobilise testing capacity at existing NHS and academic labs across the country.

“The government now risks making the same mistakes again by taking the same flawed approach, while decisions on this key issue remain shrouded in mystery.

“It’s vital that the right lessons are learned now through a cross-party, independent inquiry, so the country is better prepared ahead of a potential second wave. This must include proper scrutiny of the government’s testing strategy and full transparency over decision-making.”

The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.

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