Scientist tells ministers to boost Covid testing capacity with network of smaller ‘lifeboat labs’

A network of small “lifeboat labs” should be launched alongside the giant “Lighthouse labs” to quickly process Covid tests from care homes and hospitals, a leading scientist said today.

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, reopened the debate around the Government’s apparent failure to utilise small laboratories in universities, research centres and private facilities to boost testing capacity.

Sir Paul said the Crick, in King’s Cross, already processed swabs from 10 NHS hospitals and 90 care homes in north London and had been asked to increase its capacity to 10,000 a day.

It was keen to do so, but struggled to buy equipment because the Department of Health had requisitioned supplies for the privately-run Lighthouse mega-labs, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Yesterday there was capacity to process almost 300,000 tests: 79,547 in “pillar 1” NHS and Public Health England labs and 210,000 in the Lighthouse labs, which operate at arms-length from the NHS.

The “pillar 1” tests are from patients, NHS staff and care home residents and staff. The “pillar 2” are from drive-through and walk-in testing centres. The government target is 500,000 tests a day by the end of the month.

Sir Paul said that while capacity had increased since he first called for a Dunkirk-style mobilisation of “small ships” laboratories in June, the system was not as effective as it might be.

He said Lighthouse labs were too slow and “plagued” by false positives and false negatives in their swab test results.

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He added: “We have a 12-hour turnaround — always less than 24 hours… Of course we need the large laboratories, particularly for community testing, but small laboratories ramped up could provide up to 100,000 tests [a day] with a much more efficient turnaround. But they need to be encouraged.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday told MPs: “In many parts of the NHS, increasingly, it is NHS testing capacity that is used for NHS staff testing. That system works well, because the test is local and convenient, and we are looking to expand in [that] sort of direction.”



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