A total, constipated silence from the NHS and ministers shrouds the long-delayed new “mega lab” that was supposed to have opened in Leamington Spa last January as part of the £37 billion ‘test and trace’ system. 

The Department for Health and Social Care has stonewalled – or given misleading answers to questions from local journalists, and Matt Hancock has flatly refused to answer parliamentary questions raised by local MP Matt Western, who has subsequently raised his concerns in the local press, warning that:

“This is a scandal waiting to happen. I have heard from distressed residents waiting months to start jobs, many completely without income. I have heard from scientists who fear lack of regulation, poorly qualified staff and mismanagement at the facility.

“I have heard from NHS groups who are concerned about the undercutting of existing services, ‘stealth privatisation’ and outsourcing of vital healthcare assets. Yet the DHSC has ignored letters, emails and questions from the media – which is unacceptable and keeps the public in the dark.

Last December then Test and Trace boss Dido Harding let slip that the mega-lab would be run by a private company, Medacs, with no expertise in medical science or laboratories. Medacs is a subsidiary of the multinational Impellam Group, chaired by former Conservative Party deputy chair and tax exile Lord Ashcroft.

In January The Lowdown reported the lab scientists’ professional body, the Institute of Biomedical Science, warning: 

“It is vital that these labs have an appropriate skill mix and include significant numbers of HCPC registered Biomedical and Clinical Scientists.  We would not allow unregistered staff to run care in clinical settings such as medicine, nursing or radiography – why are labs being viewed as “different”? 

“We have professional registration in place for a reason – to protect the public.” 

By March it was clear that some staff were also being recruited by Sodexo on fixed term contracts to work in the megalab, making no mention of NHS terms and conditions, NHS Pensions, or UKAS accreditation. 

Nonetheless the Department of Health and Social Care’s response to a question from Matt Western insisted that the “mega-lab” would be “publicly owned and operated,” There was no explanation of why the new lab could not be run, and staff employed, by the neighbouring University Hospital of Coventry and Warwickshire.

Since then the opening has been postponed to “spring” – or questions of when it might open simply ignored. Dozens of local residents who have signed contracts to begin working at the laboratory have been complaining to Matt Western that they have heard nothing from recruiters – and been left in limbo, without pay. Some say they have been directed to sign non-disclosure agreements. 

Now another local newspaper, the Leamington Courier has interviewed one of these employees,  who wishes to remain anonymous but who insists that, contrary to assurances from the DHSC, the lab and its staff will be outside the NHS, and that people on universal credit are being recruited to a specific “trainee lab technician” role. They also now expect not to start work until the autumn “if I even start work at all”.

“I have confirmation via e-mail from a staff member at Blue Arrow (who along with MEDACS is recruiting the staff) that I will not get an NHS pension or any other benefits relating to working with the NHS.”

The DHSC in statements to the local press has claimed that 200 staff are employed and working at the lab – and that it will eventually create 1,800 jobs.

However the secrecy, the obvious role of private contractors in recruiting the staff, the decision to keep the mega-lab separate from the local NHS and the bypassing of the professional body and the trade unions gives real grounds for concern that another privatised fiasco is under way.

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