The company at the heart of a fiasco that saw up to 43,000 people wrongly given negative Covid results is still processing PCR tests for travel and one of its senior member of staff has been seconded to work within the UK Health Security Agency, the Guardian has learned.
Immensa, whose privately run Wolverhampton laboratory was suspended by the government over the scandal this month, is continuing to process results for international travellers who buy tests through its sister company, Dante Labs.
The government also confirmed that an “employee from Immensa/Dante Labs is supporting NHS Test and Trace [part of the UKHSA] in a technical role”, though it denied any conflict of interest.
A UKHSA spokesperson said the staff member had “no involvement whatsoever in any PCR testing commercial matters” and added: “The secondee completed a conflict of interest form when appointed and they were judged suitable for the role.”
Downing Street has dismissed claims that the estimated 43,000 false Covid test results from the Wolverhampton lab were to blame for a sharp rise in cases in south-west England, saying the region might be catching up with the rest of the country.
South-west England, which was served by the Wolverhampton lab, now has the highest case rate of any region, with 760 cases per 100,000 people, according to Public Health England. The south-east had the second highest rate, at 526 cases per 100,000.
When the false tests scandal emerged on 15 October, NHS Test and Trace suspended operations at the lab. Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth has previously raised questions about “how this private firm – which didn’t exist pre-May 2020 – was awarded a lucrative £120m contract to run the lab”.
A Whitehall source insisted that Immensa had assured the UKHSA that the Wolverhampton lab was no longer being used for PCR travel results and that any tests posted to that location would be sent to another of the company’s labs for processing.
The source said the investigation to date suggests travel tests are not affected by the same problems as they were processed using different equipment, giving the first hint that a technical failure might have been to blame for the testing scandal.
Asked whether Immensa was processing PCR travel test results, a company spokesperson said: “All PCR testing, including private testing for travel, has been suspended at the Wolverhampton lab. All samples received in Wolverhampton are being rerouted to other labs. We have been cooperating fully with the UKHSA on this matter and will continue to do so.”
On Monday Downing Street said the slew of false test results had not caused a surge in the south-west. “In terms of the causes behind the increase in the south-west, we have seen there was this lab error; I don’t believe that accounts for the increases we have seen,” Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said. “We know the south-west was an area that did not previously have as high rates as other parts of the country, which may be a factor as well.”
Dr Kit Yates, a senior lecturer in the department of mathematical sciences at the University of Bath, said it was “inconceivable that telling 43,000 people they were negative when in fact they were positive, making them believe they could safely go into schools and workplaces where they may have infected others, did not have an impact on the prevalence of Covid in the south-west … In part we may be seeing the impact of people who were given the false negatives being asked to retest and finally appearing in the figures.
“However, the vast majority of people given the false negatives will no longer be testing positive, so this is unlikely to be a big driver of the case rates. These figures will be independent of the testing scandal, indicating that the fast rises we are seeing are genuine and not a result of retesting.”
He also said it was “very odd to see No 10 trying to cover for this private company’s mistakes instead of demanding an urgent investigation and being upfront with the general public about what has happened”.
In response to the high rates of Covid, directors of public health in the south-west have advised schools to take measures such as cancelling assemblies, wearing masks in corridors and returning to bubbles.