Scientists offering to help the UK Government scale up coronavirus testing were snubbed by Matt Hancock after the Health Secretary apparently mistook the professional body representing almost 20,000 lab workers for a private firm touting for business, we can reveal.
Biomedical scientist Allan Wilson, who is president of the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS), has revealed how he offered the help of the body’s members’ to increase testing capacity.
However, Mr Hancock’s reply to Mr Wilson, which took five months and arrived at the beginning of October, referred him to a government portal for businesses seeking to win public sector contracts.
Mr Wilson, who is based at Monklands Hospital in Lanarkshire, said: “We wrote to Matt Hancock in April and we got an unhelpful letter back two weeks ago which seemed to miss the point of what we were offering. I think he thought we were a commercial company asking for work.
“We’re desperate to speak to him. We’re not being arrogant but we have the expertise of doing this for quite some time so hopefully we can help.”
Private-sector consultants are being paid £7,000 a day to help run the UK Government’s Test and Trace programme, budgeted at £12 billion.
The UK Government’s network of seven Lighthouse labs is run in partnership with private companies.
The centres, including one in Glasgow set up with the support of Lanarkshire-based pharmaceutical company BioAscent, have struggled to meet demand with some potentially infectious people with the virus waiting more than a week for test results.
Official figures show only a third of positive cases were interviewed by contact tracers in the 24 hours after their positive sample in the past two months, with the Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman blaming a backlog of tests at the Lighthouse.
Care home workers have also been affected by the backlog, with some waiting up to 10 days for the results of weekly tests. Balhousie Care Group, which runs 25 homes, said this week only 30% of test results came back by Friday night, and 77% of those not returned were tests done on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Last month we told how Scottish Government plans to move care home staff tests from the Lighthouse to NHS labs were hampered because the Lighthouse uses different test tubes and other equipment.
Mr Wilson has called on the UK Government to merge the Lighthouse labs with NHS labs, which can process coronavirus tests in 27 hours, on average.
He said: “We want to get in the room with Matt Hancock and facilitate a meeting where we get the NHS labs meeting with people who are running the Lighthouse labs and see how we can work together, rather than having this secrecy surrounding the Lighthouse labs.”
The Scottish Government said this week more than 10,000 care home staff tests per week are now processed at NHS labs, a quarter of tests taken. That will increase to 14,000 by the end of October, putting pressure on NHS labs which also process tests for other health conditions requested by GPs and hospital doctors.
Mr Wilson said: “We’re managing it, but it’s a bit of a struggle sometimes. We’re still getting more equipment delivered into the country and we’re taking on more staff to deliver the service. It is sometimes a little bit frantic. People are working long hours and weekends but we are getting there. We’re working really hard.
“I can’t praise enough the NHS staff who are so creatively and innovatively creating space for the care home staff tests because they’ll get a better service from NHS laboratories than from the Lighthouse labs.”
Documents seen by The Post show NHS Scotland has ordered £2.1 million worth of lab automation equipment for three new regional testing hubs, which the Scottish Government said will be up and running by the end of December.
The First Minister said on Friday a review of Scotland’s testing capabilities will be published “in a week to ten days” which will set out the current and projected capacity in NHS labs and the Lighthouse lab.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “There is significant work underway to maximise capacity in Scotland. This includes the regional hubs, which come on stream in a phased approach between October and December to increase our own Scottish NHS lab capacity.”
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