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Coronavirus and NHS tests hit by delay in Roche supply chain

Company says it is prioritising dispatch of Covid-19 tests 

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
,Rory Sullivan
Wednesday 07 October 2020 17:01 BST
Concerns over Covid-19 testing kits following supply chain breakdown

Thousands of routine NHS tests – including for conditions such as cancer and HIV – have been stopped after pharmaceutical giant Roche admitted it was unable to supply NHS labs with key chemicals and supplies.

The Independent has seen emails to GPs sent yesterday which told them to stop all routine tests normally sent to labs with only urgent cases being accepted.

The company supplies around 5,000 swabs a day to the NHS for Covid-19 testing. The disruption has been caused by problems at a new automated warehouse for the company based in Burgess Hill.

As well as chemicals used for NHS lab tests, the company also supplies swabs and screening kits to the health service.

On Tuesday all GPs in Lincolnshire were told by NHS bosses to stop ordering routine tests because of the shortage of chemicals.

An email seen by The Independent said the two main labs serving the county had reported “supplies issues from their key supplier (Roche) affecting their supply of chemistry analyser reagents”.

Tests affected included those for urine, liver function, glucose, bone, thyroid, heart disease and enzyme tests, as well as those for prostate cancer, HIV, Hep B and Hep C.

The email added: “Roche has advised labs to safeguard reagent supply by prioritising testing for urgent patients only.”

It said to “maintain critical services” testing for “routine GP chemistry samples on all but urgent cases” would be paused “with immediate effect to safeguard supply.”

NHS labs in North Devon have also been forced to stop GP tests because of the shortages, with GPs being warned the problems could last two weeks.

Dr Tom Lewis, lead clinician for pathology at North Devon District Hospital, said his hospital's trust had sent out communications that all non-urgent blood tests in the community should be stopped.

Derek Hill, professor of medical imaging science at University College London, said the issue could have been linked to Roche’s preparations for Brexit.

He said: “They reconfigured their warehousing ahead of Brexit to manage risks of disruption to supply chains arising from the UK's departure from the EU. It seems there are some logistics problems in the new facilities that are impacting the Covid testing supply chain. Hopefully these issues will be sorted soon before they have a significant impact on testing capacity.”

NHS sources told The Independent the problems were also linked to Brexit preparations.

Chris Hopson, from NHS Providers, which speaks for NHS hospitals said the issue highlighted the importance of the supply chain for medicines and medical equipment.

He said: "Trust leaders are telling us that this problem raises immediate operational pressures for a number of trusts as they seek to maintain testing relevant to a range of conditions including, in some areas, Covid-19. Trust leaders tell us they have been working hard with clinicians over the last 24 hours to minimise the impact on patients. That impact will depend on the amount of relevant stock the trusts hold and how quickly Roche can sort the distribution problems it is having.

“The problem reinforces the vital importance of ensuring there is a robust medical supply chain in place as we head towards the end of the Brexit transition period. As this incident shows, there can be very significant consequences for patients and trusts if the medical supply chain fails. Trusts are almost totally in the hands of the government and commercial suppliers to manage the end of the Brexit transition effectively.  

“We understand Roche, trusts and other commercial partners are working hard to resolve this particular problem quickly, but we should see this as a clear warning sign of what could go wrong if the government doesn’t manage Brexit transition effectively.”

On Tuesday, Roche said it had experienced a "very significant drop" in its processing capacity due to a problem with its Sussex distribution centre, the only one it has in the UK.

Roche warned the issues with the supply chain may not be resolved for two to three weeks, but is prioritising the dispatch of Covid-19 and antibody tests.

In a letter the company told customers to activate their local contingency plans "and recommend that you look to prioritise essential services only".

The letter adds: "In September we moved from our old warehouse to a new automated warehouse capable of much higher volumes.

"However, during the transition, we encountered some unforeseen issues and a very significant drop in our processing capacity. Since then we have worked around the clock to prioritise and manage orders as well as increase this capacity."

An NHS spokesperson said: "Roche has alerted hospitals to an issue with their supply chain, and they will be working urgently to resolve this issue."

A Roche spokesperson said: "We deeply regret that there has been a delay in the dispatch of some products and apologise to any of our customers who have been impacted.

"As well as extending working hours, we have recruited extra staff and, where they can, our dedicated teams on the ground are working with customers to distribute products and minimise service disruption.

"We will continue to provide regular updates to our customers and we are doing everything possible to return to routine operations.

"We are prioritising the dispatch of Covid-19 PCR and antibody tests and doing everything we can to ensure there is no impact on the supply of these to the NHS."

Roche also told The Independent the new warehouse had been in plans for a number of years and the issue was not linked to Brexit.

Munira Wilson, MP for Twickenham and health spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, expressed her concern about the impact of the issue while the healthcare system was under "incredible strain".

She said: "These reports will leave many people incredibly anxious, and rightly so.

"This does not only have serious consequences for our ability to test for Covid-19, but others with potentially incredibly serious illnesses will also be unable to get the blood tests or screening they need."

She added: "Our NHS must be able to treat everyone, whatever their illness, and ministers must do everything in their power to resolve this issue with the supply chain as quickly as possible.

"We cannot allow this virus to get further out of control, as well as further risking the health of thousands of individuals whose diagnosis of serious illness could either be delayed or go undetected."

The prime minister’s spokesman said: "Roche alerted DHSC yesterday to an issue with their supply chain and they are working to resolve this urgently. It is expected to have little to no impact on Covid testing and Roche are already prioritising the despatch of tests to ensure uninterrupted supplies. Measures have been put in place to ensure other essential NHS supplies can continue and Roche has extended working hours so the can return to normal as quickly as possible.”

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