A top scientist has accused ministers of neglecting small laboratories that could save Britain's messy testing system from collapse. Labor called on Health Secretary Matt Hancock to step down over a blunder that left thousands of cases overlooked.
The government is staring at the barrel of disaster as infections continue to rise and officials struggle to cope with more than 200,000 swabs processed daily.
Sir Paul Nurse, executive director of London's Francis Crick Institute, said there was a network of universities and research institutes on alert to improve the UK's testing capacity alongside the government's centralized lighthouse laboratories.
But Sir Paul said the small ships – as they were called – had difficulty buying equipment and reagents because the government was hoarding them for their own laboratories, which he described as "too slow" and with too many chains of command.
It comes after he urged the prime minister in April to invoke the spirit of Dunkirk and small ship laboratories to start screening for the deadly infection.
Mr Hancock said today that the demand for testing is once again outperforming and the government needs to start rationing swabs so that the most vulnerable groups get access first. He admitted it would take weeks to fix the problem.
It's the latest in a long line of test failures, and comes just a day after an Excel bug caused 16,000 Covid-19 cases to be lost in government systems. In addition to underestimating the scale of the UK outbreak, the details were not critically shared with contact tracers, meaning people exposed to the virus were not tracked.
Labor vice-chair Angela Rayner this morning called on Mr. Hancock to step down as Minister of Health for his "shameful" handling of the crisis. She described Mr Hancock as "a total disaster for the country" and said the recent swab mistakes had made Britain a "mockery" around the world.
Sir Paul Nurse, head of London's Francis Crick Institute, said there was a network of universities and research institutions on standby to keep Britain's chaotic testing system from collapsing
Mr Hancock said today that the demand for testing is exceeding supply and that the government should start rationing swabs so that the most vulnerable groups are given access first. He admitted the correction would take weeks
Labor vice-chair Angala Rayner this morning called on Mr. Hancock to step down as Minister of Health for his "shameful" handling of the crisis
Sir Paul, whose lab at Crick has been running tests for the local University College London Hospitals Trust and other hospitals since the pandemic began, said a local approach was the only way out of the chaos.
He told BBC Radio 4 Today: “I think it has to be a different approach than the centralized labs that don't replace them, but complement them.
“The big Lighthouse Labs have capacities, but a long line of communication, they don't always work optimally and they can be too slow and be plagued by false positive and false negative results and the like.
WHAT ARE THE LIGHTHOUSE LABS?
What is a lighthouse laboratory?
The labs are set up to process the swab tests that are used to diagnose people with coronavirus.
They contain machines that are capable of a process called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which enlarges samples of DNA from people's saliva and mucous membrane to look for signs of the virus.
Samples taken in swab test centers are delivered to the laboratories, where the technicians analyze the samples and store the result in a database. This then sends the result back to the person who performed the test and records it in the government's data.
Where are the Lighthouse Labs?
- Milton Keynes (run by UK Biocentre)
- Alderley Park, Cheshire (Medicines Discovery Catapult)
- Glasgow (University of Glasgow & Local Hospital)
- Cambridge (Cambridge University, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline)
- Antrim, Northern Ireland (Randox)
- Newport (PerkinElmer & Welsh Government)
- Loughborough (PerkinElmer & Charnwood Campus)
- Newcastle (planned; partner not confirmed)
- Bracknell (planned; partner not confirmed)
Who runs the Lighthouse Labs?
The laboratory system is ultimately controlled by the Ministry of Health, which hand-selects existing laboratories across the country and pays them for standardized processing of Covid-19 tests.
There is no threshold a laboratory must meet to become a lighthouse laboratory, but all can handle tens of thousands of tests per day and can be expanded.
No new laboratories have been built, but institutions at universities and pharmaceutical companies are getting new equipment, improved laboratory space, and money to hire their own qualified staff to meet demand. Some of the laboratories use existing staff.
The laboratories used so far include such The pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, the universities of Cambridge, Glasgow and Dundee as well as the scientific organizations UK Biocentre, Medicines Discovery Catapult and PerkinElmer from the USA.
In addition to the Lighthouse Labs, the government also uses facilities from Public Health England, the NHS, and other smaller universities and institutions known as Surge Labs.
“So what I suggested early on, and I still do, is that, as Jeremy Hunt said, we need to look for more local solutions because we have hospitals and nursing homes that have vulnerable people and we need to protect them in the coming winter because they will die.
“Of course we need the big laboratories, especially for community tests. However, skilled small laboratories could run up to 100,000 tests with a much more efficient turnaround, but they need to be encouraged, they need to be supported. & # 39;
Sir Paul added, “For example, the NHS has just asked us to increase our performance to 10,000 tests a day, 50-60,000 a week. We can do that easily, but we need equipment.
“When we try to buy the equipment we are told we cannot buy it because everything is meant for the Lighthouse Labs. The NHS wants us to improve our game, but then the Department of Health blocks the way that prevents us from doing so. Better to bring together what is currently not the strategy we are pursuing. & # 39;
A staggering 98 percent of Britons who take coronavirus tests at home get no results within 24 hours, according to the latest figures from NHS Test and Trace.
The longer they go undiagnosed, the less likely they are to isolate the disease and pass it on to others.
Sir Paul said small labs like his had most tests done in 12 hours.
He added, “What we've done at Crick is to re-use our academic research labs to actually provide testing to 10 North London hospitals and 90 nursing homes.
“We have set it up so that we have a processing time of 12 hours, usually within less than 24 hours. And it works very effectively.
“This allows the information to be passed back to patients, those working in the hospital and the most vulnerable, very quickly, so that isolation can take place.
“We set it up so that we have some full-time researchers there to run it, but we also have a cohort of volunteers who may work there one day a week but otherwise get on with their normal work because they just are spend one day a week on the tests.
& # 39; That was really effective. I started to call it after the analogy of the boats, the lifeboat laboratories, because they are small, on-site, are staffed by volunteers, and these volunteers have a sense of civic duty. & # 39;
Due to a lack of testing, the British were told to drive hundreds of miles, sometimes to different countries in the UK, to get a swab.
It has also been reported that surgeons have to stop operations because patients do not have access to a test.
It came when Labor Vice Chair Angela Rayner called on Mr. Hancock to resign after a "catastrophic" string of mistakes made during the crisis.
When speaking on Good Morning Britain about the recent Excel bug, Ms. Rayner said he should "hang his head in shame" and step back.
She added, “It is absolutely incredible that they (the government) have made fun of us around the world.
"It used to be one of those democracies that everyone was proud of and yet knew it was a joke."
When asked if the Minister of Health should resign, she said, “Well, he's a shame. The government is. I would get rid of him tomorrow. I believe the entire front bank is an absolute disaster for this country. & # 39;
Earlier this month, Boris Johnson asked university directors to send him hundreds of academics to keep the UK testing system from collapsing.
The prime minister wrote to the heads of more than 50 top universities and medical schools asking for their "urgent assistance" to fill the government's new megalabs, which are short of staff as demand increases.
He appealed to 400 "technicians, post-docs or PhD students with molecular biology experience" to fill the Lighthouse laboratories in Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Manchester, Newport and Glasgow, and to "qualified technicians / post-docs with management experience" to take the test Trace Laboratory Team to manage all of our laboratory capacity. "
He also urged academics to register "as soon as possible" for six to twelve months and promised that the government would reimburse them at their current university fees.
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