British PM Johnson pledges millions of Covid-19 tests but UK labs can't cope

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – When Sam George, a furniture maker from London, developed a persistent cough this week, he tried to book a coronavirus test on the British government website.

But there were no slots available at any of the centres he was offered – even one four hours’ drive away. “I ended up paying £210 (S$367) for a next-day private test,” Mr George, 28, said.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Six months ago, Britain had no mass testing capacity and was forced to impose a damaging lockdown that plunged the economy into its deepest recession in 300 years, even as the British death toll soared to the highest in Europe.

Now, despite intense efforts to ramp up capacity, the testing programm is back in crisis.

On Tuesday, Ms Sarah-Jane Marsh, one of the officials in charge of testing, apologised publicly to people who could not get a test, blaming “critical pinch-point” issues in laboratories.

The government says demand is simply outstripping availability – too many people are seeking tests even though they don’t have symptoms. Others blame poor management and staffing shortages.

Either way, the failures are causing growing alarm among politicians in the ruling Conservative Party, who fear that unless a viable system can be developed fast to keep track of the disease, the country will struggle to cope as the virus spreads exponentially again.

Back in March and April, as the pandemic spiralled out of control, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his team vowed to fix the problem and deliver a “world-beating” testing system.

Ministers developed a network of Lighthouse Labs run in partnership with the private sector to scale up testing operations as fast as they could.

Officials have said these Lighthouse Labs can’t cope with soaring demand.

Yet the figures suggest there should be plenty of spare capacity in the system.

Just over 227,000 tests were processed on Friday, while official testing capacity stood at 375,000.

The figures cover swab tests, which show if someone currently has the virus, as well as antibody and surveillance testing.

Mr Johnson has said he wants capacity to hit 500,000 per day by the end of October.

The time it takes to process the test samples is getting worse, too.

Care home residents wait an average of 83 hours for their results, government figures showed on Thursday, almost triple the wait in mid-June.

Why are so many of the tests that are meant to be available still not being taken up, while patients such as Mr George can’t get one unless they drive hundreds of miles away?

According to some scientists, staffing shortages are now a problem at the Lighthouse Labs, which they say have relied on PhD and post-doctorate students to help process samples.

With universities reopening this month, students are leaving the labs to complete their studies, just when demand for tests intensifies.

Mr Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, which represents NHS lab workers, said the Lighthouse model was “never really a permanent solution”, and many students who staffed the centres were “not surprisingly returning to their normal life”.

More NHS labs are now seeing samples redirected from the Lighthouse Labs to cope with increasing demand, he said.

“At the moment, we’re managing but we don’t know what winter holds – if there was a serious flu outbreak, I think we’d be close to breaking point.”

Mr Michael Hopkins, from the University of Sussex Business School said the Lighthouse Labs had been “hastily set up with an almost itinerant workforce” who lacked experience.

Britain is also an outlier in its strong reliance of self-sampling, where people are asked to swab their own throat and nose, he said.

This is not how Germany, Ireland, Spain or South Korea perform tests, and it raises questions about the reliability of the results, he said.

Britain’s battle with coronavirus is at a critical moment.

Mr Johnson spent the summer trying to kickstart the stalled economy, urging people to go back to work, take children to school, and spend money in shops and restaurants.

But winter is around the corner, and as in neighbouring France, the virus is spreading rapidly again, forcing officials to reimpose tighter rules on gatherings.

With no imminent prospect of a vaccine, Mr Johnson this week pinned his hopes on a “moonshot” ambition: a mass testing system running millions of checks each day that will give people who are not infectious a “freedom pass” to mix with one another as if the coronavirus had never happened.

But even members of Mr Johnson’s party are growing concerned.

If the government can’t provide enough tests for people at this point in September, when they knew schools would be returning and have been actively encouraging people back to work, how will officials process millions of tests a day?

“This is an urgent matter that he needs to grip before the autumn and winter bites,” Mr Greg Clark, a Tory who chairs Parliament’s science committee warned Health Minister Matt Hancock on Thursday.

Government officials said labs were effectively staffed and capacity was increasing. The government plans to recruit more workers as new labs open.

In a statement, the health department said the system worked but “we are seeing a significant demand for tests including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible”.

“New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for those who need them and we are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, and prioritising at-risk groups,” a government spokesman said.

But for patients such as Mr George, Mr Johnson’s team just doesn’t seem to have a grip.

“During lockdown, the government was saying not enough people are getting tested, it’s your fault,” he said.

“Now they’re saying too many people are getting tested. It’s infuriating.”

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