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A top scientist has slammed the government over its “perverse” decision to set up coronavirus testing labs outside the NHS without looking at “what was already in their own backyard”.
President of the professional body for biomedical science Allan Wilson says a dual system of NHS labs and new government labs processing Covid-19 tests has contributed to the target of 100,000 tests a day regularly being missed.
He accused the government of pushing ahead with setting up three new laboratories – known as the Lighthouse labs – to roll out coronavirus testing without first asking if NHS labs had capacity to do it.
Wilson, who represents scientists from at least 130 NHS labs across the country, says these NHS labs should have been the central plank on which testing infrastructure for the national programme was built.
“But instead they somehow either made an assumption that we couldn’t do it or based on a political decision decided they did not want to ask the NHS labs to deliver this and they went to the private sector,” said the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS).
“It just seems perverse that we created this whole additional structure rather than looking at what was in their own backyard,” he said.
NHS labs are currently processing about 30,000 of the government’s daily 100,000 Covid-19 testing target, Wilson claims, while the Lighthouse labs are responsible for the other 70,000.
The government says the NHS has done more than half of all UK tests overall since the crisis began – 848,000 people – but did not say whether the Lighthouse labs, which have tested 745,000 over a shorter period of time, had overtaken the health service in terms of daily use since being built midway through the pandemic.
The government has only met or exceeded the 100,000 target on three days since the beginning of May.
It has faced a barrage of criticism over 50,000 tests reportedly being secretly flown to the United States for processing, with long delays reported in people receiving test results, rendering the tests effectively clinically useless.
Wilson says a model in which the NHS labs ran the lion’s share of testing and new labs were used as overspill capacity should have been the government’s first port of call, similar to the plan for the Nightingale hospitals.
He believes testing centres could have been set up at GP surgeries, which already have existing links with NHS labs, creating a local testing network nearer to people’s homes.
“We have decades of experience of doing high volume, high quality, high throughput testing, that exists across the networks and all across the UK, and yet that just seems to have been ignored,” said Wilson.
“So if you’d actually had a very different approach and just asked the NHS to do it, we could have formed those local partnerships.”
Instead, the government opted for a model that has seen it set up the three new Lighthouse labs in Milton Keynes, Cheshire and Glasgow and a network of 50 regional testing sites run by contractors such as Serco and Deloitte.
While NHS labs process tests from patients at hospitals, the Lighthouse labs are responsible for processing the wider roll-out of tests from people visiting regional test sites or using home sampling kits.
Wilson says the government’s model has resulted in both NHS and Lighthouse labs competing for precious resources needed to process samples in the lab, amid an international shortage.
He is also concerned there is currently no system for coronavirus test results from the Lighthouse labs to be entered into patients’ medical records.
“If you go to an NHS lab the results are there and easily auditable and they go into the patient record,” he claimed. “If you go to a Lighthouse lab the IT systems are very weak at the moment and they’re not joined up to the patient records.”
The IBMS president accused the government of having become fixated on an “any test will do” strategy, saying it has lost sight of the clinical reason why mass testing is so crucial.
“I think in this rush to just get to that 100,000 target, any test will do isthe strategy,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether we’ve actually taken the test, we’ll just send a kit out for you to take a sample. That to me is not a test done.”
He said he believed it was a “flagrant manipulation of the data” to say the government had met its 100,000 tests a day target by its deadline.
The IBMS president also alleges Lighthouse labs, which are staffed by volunteers such as PhD students, are not bound by the same strict regulatory structures that NHS labs are.
And he warned that the government’s decision to opt for coronavirus testing outside the NHS could signal further privatisation of laboratory testing services seeping in through the back door.
A government spokesperson strongly refuted this, saying the point of setting up private labs was to protect NHS capacity so it could be focused on patients.
The issue could become a key battleground in the post-Brexit talks over a US trade deal.
“We’ve real concerns that this is – and I hate to use the horrible phrase the thin end of the wedge – but a deregulation of laboratory testing within the UK,” said Wilson.
“We can see a situation where our suppliers are almost turning into our competitors and setting up labs.
“It’s difficult not to see an element of political dogma in this as well.”
HuffPost UK asked the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) which contractors were running the 50 regional testing sites and how these contracts were awarded.
The department confirmed management consultancy Deloitte was supporting delivery of its Covid-19 testing programme alongside other public and private sector partners.
It said Serco was providing facilities management at some regional test sites.
But the DHSC would not comment on which other private sector contractors were involved in the national testing programme or whether these contracts were awarded under emergency Covid-19 procurement powers.
Members of the public have also taken to Twitter to criticise the testing service in recent days.
Artist Kerry Fox from North Yorkshire said she had been impressed with the regional test site she visited in York on May 4 but has still not received her results more than 10 days later.
“If I’ve heard nothing by the end of the week then I think that’s it,” said the 50-year-old. “I think it’s gone and lost to the ether.”
She was selected for a test after using the Covid Symptom Tracker app set up by King’s College London.
“To be honest, cynical old me did wonder when I got the email through to say I could have a test, I did wonder if I was just a statistic to bulk up the numbers,” she said.
Wilson says these types of logistical problems could have been avoided if the government had opted for a local network of testing linked to existing NHS labs rather than setting up new infrastructure.
“We would have had much better control over that testing if it had been delivered with NHS labs as a primary port of call,” he said.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Allan Wilson’s comments are factually incorrect.
“We have doubled the capacity of NHS and PHE labs, allowing them to process the majority of the tests carried out so far.
“They work alongside Lighthouse labs, which were built to further boost testing capacity and have been subject to independent validation by the NHS.
“We successfully hit our target to deliver 100,000 tests, with more than 126,000 carried out today, ensuring anyone who is eligible and needs a test can get one, and we have been completely transparent throughout.”