Sun 24 January 2021

Byline Times understands that one of the UK’s largest ‘Lighthouse’ laboratories was forced to scale down its operation last week, despite surging demand

One of the UK’s flagship ‘Lighthouse’ testing labs cut the working hours of some staff last week, amid a shortage of provisions, Byline Times understands.

According to someone working at the Lighthouse lab in Milton Keynes, who helps to process COVID-19 tests, their team was asked to work shorter hours last week, with management citing a lack of consumables – items such as reagents and pipettes – needed to process results.

Rather than working a standard 12-hour shift, the person in question worked for just five-and-a-half hours on two consecutive days. On the third day, the team was invited to take a free day’s holiday.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed to Byline Times that the Milton Keynes lab has experienced a short-term shortage of supplies in recent days. The lab’s press team said that all media enquiries are handled by the Government.

Processing 30,000 COVID-19 test results every day, the Milton Keynes facility describes itself as a “mega lab” and has helped the country to rapidly expand its diagnostics capacity. Indeed, Milton Keynes was the first ‘Lighthouse’ lab, launched by Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock in April.

However, despite its importance to the UK’s pandemic response, up to 200 staff could have worked shorter hours last week. This is despite a surge in cases in the south-east as a mutation in the disease causes markedly higher transmission.

The Government’s latest figures, for the period from 3 to 9 December, show that 1.7 million people were tested for COVID-19, a 6% increase from the previous week. Scientific advisors have suggested that the new variant could be 71% more infectious than the original manifestation of the Coronavirus.

Given this development, one would hope the UK’s testing system would be firing on all cylinders, in order to contain the spread of the virus over the risky Christmas period.

However, that doesn’t appear to have been the case in Milton Keynes last week.

The cause of the shortages is not known. Byline Times understands that the lab has been working at capacity for weeks and so would have been able to anticipate its needs. That said, a prolonged period of high demand – wrought by a Winter spike in the virus – could well have caused resourcing problems.

It is understood the lab has now procured the supplies and should be running at full capacity this week.

The UK has been experiencing problems at ports, which could well have made it difficult to source necessary provisions. In late November it was reported that 11,000 containers of healthcare equipment were causing a logjam at the port of Felixstowe, at a cost of £1 million a day. This issue also now appears to have replicated at Southampton, with Westbound Logistics claiming that a rush to divert vessels away from Felixstowe, along with Southampton’s own equipment backlog, has led to “severe congestion”, “transport backlogs” and “price increases”.

This situation has manifested in recent days through miles-long tailbacks in Kent, set to be exacerbated by France’s decision, announced yesterday, to temporarily block imports from Dover to Calais.

And the Brexit transition period hasn’t even ended yet.

“NHS Test and Trace has capacity in place to respond to increases in demand and people can have confidence that if they have symptoms and need a test, they can get one,” a DHSC spokesperson said. “Additional capacity is in place with two new London university laboratories launched this week with a third due to go live this coming week.”

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