Staff in NHS laboratories are increasingly alarmed at the implications of the government’s turn to create a new network of “super-labs” to process what is supposed to be a rising number of tests for Covid-19, leaving 44 NHS labs under-used.

The development of a new network of labs running parallel to the NHS has taken place with no transparency and no attempt to consult with the unions.

NHS scientific staff in south London have now contacted the Lowdown to express their frustration that while they have the capacity to process large numbers of tests, the NHS labs are struggling to get supplies of the kits and the reagents required.

One member of staff explained their concerns: “I am so annoyed about this testing fiasco.

“I want to know why the new super-labs have been set up, because if they gave the NHS labs the resources they could easily to the tests. Our lab has been ready for ages to do large numbers of tests. We have the equipment and we have staff.

“We could do up to 5,000 tests every 24 hours if we really pushed, and people are quite willing to do extra nights for a while. But we can’t get the bloody kits! Public Health England and NHS England and some other body are in charge of kit allocation and it seems they are saving them all for the super-labs.”

In early April a former director of the World Health Organisation, Professor Anthony Costello, said 44 labs in the UK were underused.

There are also concerns of the qualifications of the staff who are being recruited to these new ‘Lighthouse Labs’, who according to the architects of the plan include ‘highly qualified staff and volunteers.’

“We don’t know how the staff for these super-labs are trained, or if they are accredited. Nobody seems to know who is running them, and it doesn’t seem to be under the jurisdiction of our professional body,” says our South London contact, who correctly fears extensive private sector involvement.

In fact the new labs have been created through a partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care, Medicines Discovery Catapult, UK Biocentre and the University of Glasgow, supported by both NHS and Public Health England.  The Alderley Park site is “working closely with AstraZeneca,” and the Glasgow facility is linked with “BioAscent Discovery Ltd”; another drug giant GSK is also involved.

The new labs have extensively borrowed testing equipment from “dozens of universities, research institutes and companies across Britain.

However it’s not just NHS lab staff who are alarmed at this new development: the President of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (IBMS), the leading professional body for scientists, support staff and students in the field of biomedical science, has also spoken out expressing concerns about the establishment of the new super-labs:

It concerns me when I see significant investments being made in mass testing centres that are planning to conduct 75,000 of the 100,000 tests a day.

“These facilities would be a welcome resource and take pressure off the NHS if the issue around testing was one of capacity. However, we are clear that it is a global supply shortage holding biomedical scientists back, not a lack of capacity. ….

“The profession is now rightly concerned that introducing these mass testing centres may only serve to increase competition for what are already scarce supplies and that NHS testing numbers will fall if their laboratories are competing with the testing centres for COVID-19 testing kits and reagents in a ‘Wild West testing’ scenario.

“The UK must avoid this for the sake of patient safety.”

The IBMS statement also raises the issue of the quality of the work to be done by the new labs and the failure to involve the professional body:

“It is clear that two testing streams now exist: one delivered by highly qualified and experienced Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registered biomedical scientists working in heavily regulated United Kingdom Accreditation Services (UKAS) accredited laboratories, the other delivered mainly by volunteer unregistered staff in unaccredited laboratories that have been established within a few weeks.

“This has presented another key concern – in that we have not been involved in assuring the quality of the testing centres and are now being kept at arm’s length from their processes, even when they exist close to large NHS laboratories.”

The IBMS statement goes on to press for merging the existing NHS labs with the new testing centres into “one stream”.

Unite’s National Officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe echoes these concerns:

“We are concerned that the considerable skills of the NHS scientific workforce has not been fully utilised during the pandemic emergency.

“Reports of private pathology providers to NHS furloughing their staff, albeit on a voluntary basis, does not give confidence that the correct decision are being made.

“In addition, we have been given little information about the staffing and quality assurance arrangements of the super testing laboratories and it is unclear who is responsible for their operation and implementation amongst the spaghetti junction organisation of the English health system.  “Unite will be seeking answers and positive engagement on these issues.”

However the government has pressed ahead regardless, opening  three new super-labs in Milton Keynes, Glasgow and Alderley Park in Cheshire, boasting that “each individual site took just 3 weeks to complete and begin testing,” and quoting the newly-appointed National Testing Coordinator Professor John Newton describing the super-labs as “the biggest network of diagnostic labs in British history.”

Meanwhile in an apparently unconnected move an additional, fully private sector “super-lab” with capacity to process up to 30,000 tests per day is being built in Cambridge by AstraZeneca and GSK.

Each of the “new” Lighthouse sites has taken over premises from a previous facility: the Milton Keynes super-lab is converted from a biosample centre set up in 2015 by the National Institute for Health Research at a cost of £24m. The Alderley Park site was previously owned by AstraZeneca site, sold to Manchester Science Parks in 2014, while the Glasgow lab is hosted by the University of Glasgow in repurposed university laboratories at its Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus.

According to a BBC report all kinds of people have a finger in the pie of the Glasgow lab, which is “a collaboration between the University of Glasgow, the private sector, the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute and the NHS, and is mostly staffed by volunteers. The lab has also been set up with help from the armed services and has logistics help from accountancy firm Deloitte.

The BBC interview with Glasgow head scientist Dr Stuart McElroy makes clear both the limited initial capacity of the new lab, which he claims can process “many hundreds” tests a day: but also the lack of any connection between the super-labs and the existing NHS laboratories across the UK:

“Dr McElroy says being part of the network of superlabs allows the teams to create standard processes and quality control as well as learning from each other. They can also distribute samples efficiently across the three sites.”

It seems that disjointed government thinking has wound up developing a complex and unaccountable parallel structure of labs, rather than ensuring the existing labs get the supplies they need to do the job.

When the Covid-19 crisis eventually unwinds, and the various temporary arrangements are ended, with the universities wanting their equipment back, NHS lab staff will have a fresh fight on their hands to ensure their services are not starved of resources or further privatised.

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