A huge Covid testing lab due to open in Scotland could be delayed for months because officials have yet to secure a building, we can reveal.
The “mega lab” with capacity to turn around 300,000 tests a day was announced in November along with another centre in England. However, while the lab in Leamington Spa is opening as planned, the recruitment of 1,800 staff in Scotland has been put on hold after issues held up work on the facility.
The Scots hub is one of two announced by the UK Government, before a more transmissible variant of the Covid-19 virus emerged. Case numbers in the UK are now regularly above 50,000 a day, while the number infected in Scotland is higher than 2,000 a day.
When the new labs were announced, the UK Government said they would transform the UK’s diagnostic capabilities, more than doubling capacity, with UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying they would save lives. As well as processing Covid tests, the labs will be used for critical illness tests including for cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
The lab in Scotland and a second in Leamington Spa were both due to open in “early 2021”, according to the UK Government’s November announcement.
Scotland’s Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said in November she was working closely with Mr Hancock to deliver the lab in Scotland which would be “an important step in our fight against the virus”.
Experts have repeatedly called for the ramping up of testing capacity so that entire towns and cities can be screened in order to find and isolate asymptomatic carriers of the disease.
However, critics have accused the Scottish Government of being slow to roll out the strategy despite First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitting “community testing can play a part in controlling the virus”.
A two-week mass community testing trial in west central Scotland late last year found 426 cases from 13,000 tests but a wider rollout has yet to be announced.
The location of the lab in Scotland has yet to be announced but a message sent last week from the UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care to applicants for the lab jobs revealed delays. It said: “Unfortunately, there has been a necessary pause in recruitment as they are securing a building and dealing with the transition of an existing tenant and signing of a lease and these have taken considerably longer than originally envisaged.”
Scientist Allan Wilson, who is president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, an industry body for UK lab workers, said: “If they are not even at the stage of having the building yet, I would think that would set them back months rather than weeks.
“However, I’m not surprised it has been delayed because it had all gone quiet. And, as usual, this government lab is shrouded in secrecy.
“At the moment we don’t even know where the lab is going to be. I’ve heard it’s going to be Bellshill, but that is just a rumour.”
Mr Wilson also criticised the Scottish Government for delays to the opening of three new regional coronavirus laboratories in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
The hubs were first announced last summer and were due to open by October last year before the deadline was moved to the end of 2020.
Two of the labs opened in December but a third, in Edinburgh, is yet to open. They were set up to support the mass weekly testing of asymptomatic care home workers.
Mr Wilson said: “I haven’t even heard when the Edinburgh one will open.
“The benefit it would bring is it would ease pressure on some of the NHS labs. I think in government there is some naivety about how complex it is to set up these labs.”
The Scottish Government said yesterday the Edinburgh regional lab would open “later this month” but declined to comment on the mega lab, saying it was a matter for the UK Government.
When the Scots lab was announced, the head of Scottish Government quango Scottish Enterprise, Linda Hanna, said she was “pleased to have played a part in bringing this mega lab to Scotland”.
But Scottish Enterprise appeared to distance itself from the plan yesterday, saying: “Other than early suggestions of possible locations, we’ve not had a direct hand in the project but stand ready to facilitate/help when details become clearer.”
Expert: Mass testing is key but there’s been reluctance
Linda Bauld, public health professor at the University of Edinburgh, is among experts who have called for mass testing in Scotland to find asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
Professor Bauld said: “Mass asymptomatic testing is a really important part of our response and it will be disappointing if we don’t have a mega lab available soon. Our approach to testing has been problematic from the beginning. We were slow to set up testing and to diversify the number of labs that could be brought into the system early on.
“We are still having problems with it because there has been a reluctance in some parts of the Scottish Government, and certainly at the UK level, to get involved in mass testing at all.
“However, we’re going to need mass testing for many, many months to come. We’re also going to need to continue to test incoming travellers at our borders for years because the whole world is not going to vaccinated for years.”
The UK Government said construction of the first lab in Leamington Spa was under way but the Department of Health and Social Care was “still exploring options” for the lab in Scotland.
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