ES News email

Ministers were under pressure today to rethink the system of “outsourcing” for processing coronavirus tests as spare capacity in NHS laboratories went unused.

The chaos facing people trying to get Covid checks is understood to be a consequence of log-jams in the Lighthouse Laboratories set up by the Government at arms-length from the NHS to process swabs from drive-through and walk-in testing centres.

There are seven Lighthouse labs, including in Milton Keynes and Cambridge, and an eighth is due to open at the end of the month near Loughborough.

Experts have told the Standard that existing NHS labs, which are only used to process “pillar one” swabs from hospital patients and health and care staff, could be used to process the “pillar two” swabs from the general public.

In London, there are two joint ventures that dominate NHS testing — Health Services Laboratories, which works with trusts such as University College London Hospitals, the Royal Free London and London North West Healthcare; and Viapath, which works with Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College hospitals.

It is unclear what has caused the collapse in capacity at the Lighthouse labs, and the Government has not published figures for the last four days. But sources have said this is believed to range from a loss of staff — as people return to universities for the new term — to a shortage of the chemical reagents used on the swabs to detect the presence of Covid.

Dr Rachael Liebmann, vice-president of the Royal College of Pathologists and group medical director at Health Services Laboratories, said they had warned of a shortage of scientific and medical staff in pathology for years.

She said: “We would like to see all new Covid-19 testing laboratories linked to existing accredited laboratories which already provide NHS healthcare services to hospitals, care homes and GP practices.”

Deenan Pillay, a member of Independent Sage, the rival group of experts to the government scientific committee, said the involvement of the private sector had created a “hotch-potch” system, adding “what we are seeing now is the inability to rapidly change in accordance with events”.

It was revealed at the weekend that 200,000 swabs were having to be sent to Germany and Italy to be processed.

A survey by the Unite union today revealed only 38 per cent of its members said their NHS laboratories were working at full capacity.

The Department of Health said lab capacity continued to increase ahead of winter.

It said a Loughborough site was part of plans to scale up testing capacity to 500,000 swab tests per day by the end October, and would be able to process about 50,000 tests a day by the end of the year.

A spokesperson for the NHS said: “Actually NHS labs in England are currently operating at full tilt, and are as planned performing at 100 per cent of their capacity. NHS labs will continue to use that capacity to test hospital patients while further expanding their successful, fast turnaround and highly accurate testing capacity.”