“The government’s “world-beating” testing programme has a backlog of 185,000 swabs and is so overstretched that it is sending tests to laboratories in Italy and Germany, according to leaked documents.”
Thinking about the “Moonshot” and the way the Government has outsourced the track and trace system, Owl is reminded of the following quote from John Glenn, US astronaut : “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind – every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.”
Gabriel Pogrund, Tom Calver and Caroline Wheeler www.thetimes.co.uk
A Department of Health and Social Care report marked “Official: sensitive” also confirms that most British laboratories are clearing fewer tests than their stated capacity, as they are hit by “chaos” in supply chains.
The government claims that it has capacity for 375,000 tests a day. However, the actual number of people being tested for the coronavirus stalled to just 437,000 people a week at the start of the month — equivalent to just 62,000 a day.
Throughout last week, people in Covid-19 hotspots across the north of England struggled to get tests and were told to travel hundreds of miles for an appointment. In Bolton, which has the highest infection rate in Britain of more than 180 weekly cases per 100,000 people, no tests were available on the government’s online booking system between Thursday and Saturday.
One man in London with symptoms of the disease yesterday claimed that he had tried to book a test 60 times but found none available. Earlier in the week people in the capital had been told that the nearest site was in Aberdeen, an 18-hour round trip.
Boris Johnson used prime minister’s questions this week to reject claims by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, that the government’s testing effort was on the brink of collapse.
He has also commissioned Operation Moonshot, an ambitious plan to introduce up to 10 million daily tests by the spring, at a cost of up £100bn.
However, an investigation by The Sunday Times casts fresh doubt on the government’s ability to provide tests for a far smaller number of people.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, pledged last week that testing would be available in schools so that pupils could return safely. But schools of any size are receiving just 10 test kits each, and are being told to use them only in “exceptional circumstances” and where the pupils could not otherwise access tests at home.
Last night one Whitehall source said that the guidance would become even more stringent next week, while tests would be made available to teachers and not pupils.
For those who can get hold of tests, there is no guarantee of rapid results — or of any results at all. Leaked figures show that three-quarters of all tests miss government targets, taking longer than 24 hours from booking to result. One in four take longer than 48 hours.
Documents also show that voiding — the disposal of used tests due to human or technical error — has shot up. Randox, which won a £133m testing contract unopposed at the start of the outbreak, disposed of 12,401 used swabs in a single day on September 2. The company, which is based in Co Antrim, Northern Ireland, has voided more than 35,000 used test kits since the start of August.
Civil servants and laboratories have pointed the finger at each other for the chaos. Internal reports state that tests are mostly voided because of “swab leaks” and “damaged tubes” during transit, or human error, such as people sending urine rather than saliva.
But officials have cast doubt on the feedback coming from some labs, saying that they are freezing or throwing away tests after an arbitrary period.
It was claimed last night that Randox had blamed the high void rates on staff going on holiday. The company has not denied charging the taxpayer for voided results, but disputed the claim that it blamed employees taking leave.
Last week Randox placed job advertisements in an attempt to increase the workforce at its Covid laboratories. One ad read: “No previous experience required.” The adverts said: “It is NOT essential to have a science background.”
Staff have claimed that they are working 12-hour shifts at close to minimum wage to clear backlogs.
The foreign companies that are processing British tests include Eurofins, which is based in Luxembourg and has labs in Germany, and Immensa, based in L’Aquila, central Italy.
A source last night said that thousands of used tests in Germany could be “voided” because they were transported at the wrong temperature. Officials have also been told that processing tests from Britain is “not a priority” at foreign laboratories.
Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “People ill or with a sick child desperate for a test will be astonished that tests are piling up, left unprocessed, or even thrown away, because of errors in transportation and swabbing, while at the same time we are testing less than capacity. This really is ministerial incompetence at a whole new level.”
Last night Randox said it did not comment on voided tests or rates, but followed “accepted timelines for the validity of a sample, which ensure tests are accurate”. Failure to do so, the company added, would “jeopardise the accuracy and reliability of NHS Test and Trace”.
The Department of Health said: “Test and trace is working and our capacity is the highest it has ever been, but we are seeing a significant demand, including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible.”