Coronavirus: ‘Rapid response’ testing units taking days to turn up since private firms assumed control

In one case, 900 Royal Mail workers were told they may have deadly bug - but would have to wait four days to get checked on site

Colin Drury@colin__drury
Tuesday 11 August 2020 16:31
Mobile coronavirus testing
Mobile coronavirus testing

Royal Mail staff at a Manchester depot hit by a major coronavirus outbreak could not get tested for four days after England’s mobile testing programme – previously run by the army – was outsourced to the private sector.

Some 900 key workers at the city’s Oldham Road facility were told they might have the deadly virus – but they would have to drive to out-of-town sites if they wanted to check.

When a unit did finally turn up at the depot, it only opened during the day because G4S – the security giant contracted to run the operation – initially refused to do evenings.

It meant postal staff on the crucial night shift could still not get access to the life-saving service, the Manchester Evening News reports.

The bungle will exacerbate growing fears among both health officials and patients across the country that private firms may struggle to cope with the ultra-reactive, quick-response requirements of such a service in the same way the military could.

Such concerns are especially acute because rapid testing is widely considered crucial in identifying and controlling any infection spikes and saving lives.

Further chaos has already been reported in Oldham where one mobile unit arrived three days after being urgently requested to a key community site.

The delay occurred in the town last week, just days before the borough was identified by Public Health England as having the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country.

Tim Mitchell, a primary school teacher who spent a morning waiting unsuccessfully to be tested, said he had booked online to be seen at the site on the NHS website, only to be told when he arrived on Friday morning that nobody from G4S had yet turned up.

"There were 50 or 60 cars all waiting," he told The Independent. "In the end up, I think the unit turned up in the afternoon, although a lot of people had already gone by then. It was appalling. This is a town at the centre of a major infection spike and no-one knew what was going on."

Army-run rapid-response mobile testing units have become a familiar sight during the pandemic.

Soldiers had been deployed to set up and manage the facilities, which have been installed both within hard-hit communities and at specific locations and businesses where an outbreak has occurred.

But the Ministry of Defence confirmed that strategy was being wound down on 28 July with the programme handed over to the Department of Health and Social Care to “establish a long-term plan to deliver coronavirus tests”.

That has included companies like G4S and Serco being given lucrative contracts for running the units.

The Department of Health and Social Care has not responded to request for comment.

In a statement, Martin Hall, of G4S, said: “We are extremely proud of our thousands of dedicated team members at regional, local and mobile testing sites across the country who jumped at the opportunity to be part of the national response to the pandemic.”

Serco has also been approached for comment.

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