Chaos in Britain's Covid labs: Scientist lifts lid on government facilities

A leading scientist has today warned that Covid testing 'is dying on its a**e', as he said he was 'appalled by what I saw' at the government's testing labs. 

Concerns have been raised about the Government's seven 'lighthouse labs' and their ability to process results, due to shortages of staff and equipment. 

Genomics scientist and inventor Phil Robinson told The Times that the Lighthouse Labs were poorly managed, running out of staff and failed to set up automatic processes before a second wave of infections. 

He told the paper: 'Every part of the process was poor. The other ludicrous issue they have is they have 20 different types of tube coming into the lab. When you are running a high throughput lab it's only sensible to have one. Why they haven't standardised that I have no idea.'

A scientist has warned of chaos in the Government's coronavirus testing labs. Pictured is a volunteer processing samples at a laboratory in Alderley Park, Cheshire

A scientist has warned of chaos in the Government's coronavirus testing labs. Pictured is a volunteer processing samples at a laboratory in Alderley Park, Cheshire

The proportion of people getting their Covid-19 test results within 24 hours has plummeted for all kinds of test, performance data showed today

The proportion of people getting their Covid-19 test results within 24 hours has plummeted for all kinds of test, performance data showed today

TEST & TRACE 'COULD BE OUTSOURCED TO AMAZON' 

The UK'S test and trace system could be outsourced to a delivery giant such as Amazon, it was reported last night.

Ministers are said to be planning to hand over the running of the testing service to a logistics firm as the system struggles to cope with increased demand for tests.

A invitation to bid for a contract covering the management of the entire 'end-to-end' supply chain will be issued next month, The Daily Telegraph reported.

A Government source said 'experts in delivery services' were needed. 'At the moment, the management of NHS Test and Trace has been in-house but, as we go into winter, we need experts in this area to take it forward,' they said.

Amazon, DHL and other major logistics firms are all reportedly likely to be competing for the huge contract which will be the linchpin of the Health Secretary's promise to deliver 500,000 tests a day by the end of next month.

An information notice issued by the Department of Health calls for potential bidders to register their interest in the contract to co-ordinate the testing service's supply change.

It says: 'In order to significantly scale up the number of daily tests as well as making the operations more efficient, we are looking for an end-to-end management of all associated supply chain and logistics processes along the chain.'

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On Thursday, the Government announced that it was launching two new 'Lighthouse' testing labs in Newcastle and Bracknell.

Accompanying new sites in Newport and Charnwood, the four labs promise to increase capacity to deliver 500,000 tests per day by the end of October, DHSC said.

NHS Providers, which represents NHS trust leaders, argued that the country was 'a long way off where we need to be with testing'.

Plans have also been released for a Lighthouse laboratory dealing with testing and a Covid-19 research hub, which could create 1,100 jobs in the North East of England.

The new facility would serve the region, as well as northern Cumbria and Yorkshire, and would be the latest expansion of the Government's national Test and Trace programme.

The Lighthouse lab will be based in Gateshead with a specialist innovation lab at the Helix site in Newcastle, focused on developing new approaches to coronavirus science.

The project will be a partnership between Newcastle City Council and the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, as well as public health teams, local universities and industry.

Deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said trust leaders were 'increasingly concerned' that testing shortages could put pressure on NHS services and winter preparations due to growing staff absences.

'Trust leaders are concerned that they do not have the detail on why there are shortages, how widespread they are or how long they will last,' she added.

Reacting to the latest test and trace figures, Justin Madders, Labour's shadow health minister, said it was a 'huge concern' that the test and trace system performance 'continues to go backwards' and appeared 'on the verge of collapse'.

He added: 'Perhaps the biggest problem is that people cannot get tested, which means thousands of people are not going into the system in the first place. Ministers must get a grip and fix testing now.' 

Dr Mike Skinner, who volunteered to work in a Lighthouse Laboratory dealing with Covid-19 tests, said half the work was involved in sorting the logistics of handling the samples.

The reader in virology at Imperial College London told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'In the lab, when the testing was upscaled back in March, you really had to get all kinds of sample kits from lots of different producers, there were lots of difficulties in that.

'We had to put half of our staff into handling issues with barcoding, leaks - we actually had to remove the swabs from the tubes so they didn't gum-up some of the robots down the line.'

He added: 'It really is very much about logistics.'

Members of the public are pictured queueing outside a coronavirus testing centre in Edmonton, North London, as people across the country say they are struggling to get hold of tests

Members of the public are pictured queueing outside a coronavirus testing centre in Edmonton, North London, as people across the country say they are struggling to get hold of tests

Coronavirus testing centres have been pictured empty today despite hundreds of people saying they cannot book an appointment online. Meanwhile the company that runs them, Sodexo, is recruiting more staff and officials will say only that they are diverting capacity to badly-hit areas (Pictured: A test site in Leeds)

Coronavirus testing centres have been pictured empty today despite hundreds of people saying they cannot book an appointment online. Meanwhile the company that runs them, Sodexo, is recruiting more staff and officials will say only that they are diverting capacity to badly-hit areas (Pictured: A test site in Leeds) 

No staff at test centre on the same day the new measures were announced 

Dozens of drivers turned up at a test site to find there were no staff to swab them, on the day the health secretary announced tougher coronavirus measures for people in the north-east.

People who had booked a test on Thursday at Doxford Park, an out-of-town business park in , were told by the media they would not be tested, as there were no officials there to inform them.

Some had been turned away on the approach to the centre by security guards, who told them the computers had crashed and to try again later.

HGV mechanic Brad Cockburn, 28, made a 100-mile round trip from Bedale, North Yorkshire, only to find there were no staff, not even a tent or other infrastructure, at the site on the out-of-town business park.

He said: 'There's no organisation, it's piss-poor performance as usual.'

Rob Reid, a 58-year-old cash and carry manager from , booked for 3.45pm, only to find there were no staff.

He said: 'It annoys me. My concern is about my health and it comes across that the Government is not that concerned, when they are taking bookings on the NHS website and there's nobody here to do it.'

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Concerns have been echoed by Nicola Sturgeon, who yesterday said she still has concerns about the amount of time being taken to process coronavirus tests at UK Government laboratories.

The First Minister again spoke of pressures on the testing system in England which have caused a delay in people getting results.

Her comments came as a UK Government minister insisted coronavirus testing capacity in Scotland is 'increasing enormously'.

Iain Stewart also said that if decisions need to be made over who should be the priority for testing in Scotland, that would be for the Scottish Government.

Coronavirus tests in England are to be rationed as the Government at Westminster struggles to get to grips with soaring demand.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there will be testing 'prioritisation' for people with acute clinical need and those in social care settings, as he acknowledged

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