600 UK labs could have helped Covid testing in early stages of crisis

Sarah Knapton
An electron microscope image of the virus that causes Covid-19 

 Hundreds of laboratories were capable of helping Public Health England to carry out coronavirus tests early in the epidemic even though the body claimed just a handful were equipped for dealing with such a dangerous disease.

PHE has been repeatedly criticised for failing to ramp up testing early on in the outbreak, which would have allowed more checks of NHS workers and care home staff and more capacity to trace contacts of those infected, potentially limiting the spread.

Yovonne Doyle, director of health protection for PHE, and Prof John Newton, leader of the Government's Covid-19 testing programme, have consistently claimed that there were not enough category 3 labs to deal with such an infectious disease as coronavirus.

They said although there had been many offers of help, there was a delay in increasing testing facilities until the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had reclassified coronavirus so it could be handled by category 2 labs.

Yet The Telegraph has discovered there are about 600 category 3 labs in Britain, including 150 in universities.

Earlier this month, Dr  Doyle, told MPs on the science and technology select committee: “The reason why every laboratory was not able to engage in this immediately was that this was a novel virus it was treated as a dangerous pathogen and it was therefore categorised as category level 3 and that meant that very few laboratories initially could do that.

“We spotted this and we made an application to the commission for dangerous pathogens to reduce the level so that more laboratories could come on stream because we knew there was going to be a capacity problem.  On March 1, the Health and Safety Executive granted that permission and then that allowed many more laboratories to engage in this.”

However, MP Andrew Griffith has pointed out that world class labs at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University and the Francis Crick Institute were ignored for weeks after offering their services even after the reclassification had happened.

Prof Matthew Freeman, head of the Oxford lab, said despite any offers and approaches he had still not been contacted by the end of March.

Corona Virus - Daily Tests

When The Telegraph pointed out the vast  number of available category 3 labs, a spokesman for PHE said that health officials were concerned that the facilities would not be able to carry out mass testing.

Yet in mid February, PHE itself was only able to examine "a couple of hundred" samples daily, so even if each of the 600 extra labs could have helped with one test, it would have increased capacity threefold.

Prof Newton told MPs that all requests to help were passed to the Department of Health but not all labs meet three tests set out by the government.

“Some laboratories were invited to contribute but some weren’t able to because the third test was whether they could provide an end to end clinical service associated with the NHS and most laboratories were not in a position to do that,” he said.

 Britain has been heavily criticised for abandoning community testing on March 13 while other countries, which have achieved a lower death toll, continued to trace contacts and cut off routes of transmission for the virus.

The move also meant that the government and health services entirely lost track of how fast the virus was spreading in the community - an oversight that has only been corrected in recent weeks.

Sage minutes released recently show that in April scientists advised PHE that it was essential to carry out repeated large scale community testing if it was going to get an accurate measurement of R number and community prevalence.

Scientists said it would be important to make decisions on whether to lift or modify social distancing measures but even by April 16, PHE confirmed it would not be able to deliver such testing.  The government was forced to rely on the Office of National Statistics to begin widespread surveillance tests.