New Lighthouse labs, created by the government to boost the nation’s Covid testing capacity, are to be dramatically scaled back before they open. It is understood that new multi-million pound labs in Gateshead and Plymouth, announced last year but yet to open, are among those to see a big cut in daily testing by as much as 50% compared with original plans.
Michael Savage www.theguardian.com
Some smaller labs will be decommissioned and others will not have their contracts renewed this spring as part of the overhaul, with officials citing new technology and the changing pressures of the pandemic as factors behind a rethink. The changes are likely to reignite the debate over the use of public money by the £22bn NHS test and trace programme.
Officials insisted there would be no overall reduction in the existing capacity of more than 750,000 tests a day, and the changes would ensure better value for money. However, the move suggests capacity will not be expanded in the way originally planned. There are also there are concerns about overhauling testing capacity weeks ahead of school reopening. Dido Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace, admitted the service had failed to predict demand when schools and universities returned last autumn.
The Gateshead Lighthouse lab, scheduled to open in December, was due to have a daily capacity of 80,000 tests a day. The Plymouth lab was meant to open in January, with a 40,000-a-day capacity. Both are yet to open, but are expected to do so with significantly reduced testing targets. A so-called “mega lab” originally planned for Scotland with the capacity to process up to 300,000 tests a day has already been shelved. A similar lab in Leamington Spa is still due to go ahead as planned.
Some insiders warned that the debate about testing capacity should be put on hold until after the summer, while others said that quicker and cheaper lateral flow tests, which do not need to be processed in a lab, should not be used in place of lab-based PCR tests. NHS test and trace officials said lateral flow tests were not being used this way.
Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at Bristol University and a member of the independent Sage group of scientists, said: “Tailoring your lab capacity to meet the need is, of course, what you should do. We’ve got to be aware that variants are coming at us – we might get a variant that damages the immunity provided by vaccination. Even if it reduced the effect of the vaccine by 50%, that would be still hugely problematic for the country. So, if they are going to reduce the labs at all, they should be mothballing them rather than bulldozing them.”
The government’s focus should be on helping local public health teams to conduct rapid contact tracing and supporting and compensating people who are asked to self-isolate, according to several public health officials.
Richard Murray, the chief executive of the independent charity the King’s Fund, said: “It is vital that the government gets this right – a failure to track and respond quickly to local outbreaks, especially of new variants, could mean that case numbers begin to rise, and risks squandering the hard work of the NHS and the sacrifices made by the public since the pandemic began.”
Professor Maggie Rae, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said she did not want to criticise people working in the testing programme. “But what I am going to question is the amount of money spent on the programme – to what purpose and to what impact?” She asked how much of funding was also going to local authorities and their public health teams.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our testing system has continued to evolve, and now includes both symptomatic tests processed in a lab, and asymptomatic tests that can be used rapidly at home or at work. Turnaround time has improved and new technology means we can process hundreds of thousands of tests a day in one lab, and respond to increased demand as needed. Our vaccine rollout also continues at pace, getting jabs into arms and offering as much protection as possible, as quickly as possible.
“Testing must remain a vital part of the response to Covid-19 as we cautiously ease lockdown restrictions, but this improved system means we are now able to consolidate our laboratory network to achieve the best value for money. Our overall national laboratory capacity will not reduce, and everyone who needs a test will still be able to get one, quickly.”