Expert says invest in 'small ship' labs to save UK's testing system

Top scientist who begged Number 10 to ramp up Covid-19 testing with ‘small ships’ attacks ‘slow’ Lighthouse Labs for taking away vital equipment from ‘lifeboats’ that could protect the most vulnerable

  • Sir Paul Nurse said network of universities and research teams were on standby
  • Drawing wartime analogies, he said it was time to let ‘little ships’ come to rescue
  • Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called for ‘disgrace’ Mr Hancock to resign

A top scientist has accused ministers of neglecting small laboratories that could save Britain’s chaotic testing system from collapse – as Labour called for Health Secretary Matt Hancock to resign over a swabbing bungle that saw thousands of cases missed.

The Government is staring down the barrel of catastrophe as infections continue to spike and officials struggle to cope with more than 200,000 swabs being processed each day. 

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of London’s Francis Crick Institute, said there was a network of universities and research bodies on alert to help boost the UK’s testing capacity alongside the Government’s centralised Lighthouse labs.  

But Sir Paul said the small ships — as they have been nicknamed — were struggling to buy equipment and reagents because the Government is hoarding them for its own labs, which he described as being ‘too slow’ and having too many chains of command. 

It comes after he urged the Prime Minister in April to summon the Dunkirk spirit and let ‘small ship’ labs start screening for the deadly infection.

Mr Hancock said today demand for tests was once again outstripping supply and the government would need to start rationing swabs so the most vulnerable groups get access first. He admitted it would take weeks to correct the problem. 

It is the latest fiasco in a long line of testing failures and comes just a day after an Excel bungle led to 16,000 Covid-19 cases being lost in Government systems. As well as under-estimating the scale of the outbreak in the UK, critically the details were not passed to contact tracers, meaning people exposed to the virus were not tracked down.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner this morning called for Mr Hancock to stand down as health secretary for his ‘disgraceful’ handling of the crisis. She described Mr Hancock as a ‘total disaster for the country’ and said the latest swabbing errors had made the UK a ‘laughing stock’ around the world.  

Sir Paul Nurse, chief of London’s Francis Crick Institute, said there was a network of universities and research bodies on standby to save Britain’s chaotic testing system from collapse

Mr Hancock said today that demand for tests was outstripping supply and the government would need to start rationing swabs so the most vulnerable groups get access first. He admitted it would take weeks to correct

Labour’s deputy leader Angala Rayner this morning called for Mr Hancock to stand down as health secretary for his ‘disgraceful’ handling of the crisis

Sir Paul, whose lab at the Crick has been turning around tests for the local University College London Hospitals Trust and other hospitals since the start of the pandemic, said a localised approach was the only way out of the mess.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘I think it has to be a different approach from the centralised labs, not substituting for them but additional to them.

‘The big Lighthouse Labs do have capacity, but they have a long line of communication, they don’t always work optimally and they can be too slow and get plagued by false positives and false negatives and the like. 

What is a Lighthouse Lab?

The laboratories are set up to process the swab tests that are used to diagnose people with coronavirus.

They contain machines capable of a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which magnifies DNA samples from people’s saliva and mucous to look for signs of the virus.

Samples taken at swab testing centres are delivered to the labs where technicians analyse the samples and file the result into a database, which then sends the result back to the person who took the test and logs it in the Government’s data.

Where are the Lighthouse Labs?

  • Milton Keynes (Run by UK Biocentre)
  • Alderley Park, Cheshire (Medicines Discovery Catapult)
  • Glasgow (University of Glasgow & local hospital)
  • Cambridge (University of Cambridge, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline)
  • Antrim, Northern Ireland (Randox)
  • Newport (PerkinElmer & Welsh Government)
  • Loughborough (PerkinElmer & Charnwood Campus)
  • Newcastle (planned; partners not confirmed)
  • Bracknell (planned; partners not confirmed)   

Who runs the Lighthouse Labs? 

The lab system is ultimately controlled by the Department of Health, which hand-picks existing laboratories around the country and pays them to process Covid-19 tests in a standardised way.

There is not a threshold a lab must meet to become a Lighthouse Lab, but all are capable of processing tens of thousands of tests per day and have capacity to expand. 

No new labs have been built, but institutions at universities and pharmaceutical companies are given new equipment, improved lab spaces and money to hire their own qualified staff to cope with the demand. Some of the labs use existing staff.

Labs being used so far include ones at pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, the universities of Cambridge, Glasgow and Dundee, and the scientific organisations UK Biocentre, Medicines Discovery Catapult and US-based PerkinElmer.  

Alongside the Lighthouse Labs, the Government also uses facilities run by Public Health England, the NHS and other smaller universities and institutions known as ‘surge labs’.

‘So, what I suggested early on, and I still in fact do, is that we need to look at more local solutions, just as Jeremy Hunt has said, because we have hospitals and care homes which have vulnerable people, and we need to protect them in the coming winter because it’s them who are going to die.

‘Of course we need the large labs, particularly for community testing. But small labs ramped up could provide up to 100,000 tests with a much more efficient turnaround but they need to be encouraged, they need to get support.’

Sir Paul added: ‘For example, the NHS has just asked us to up our output to 10,000 tests a day, 50-60,000 a week. We can easily do that but we need equipment. 

‘When we try to buy the equipment, we’re told we can’t buy it because it’s all ear-marked for the Lighthouse Labs, so the NHS wants us to up our game but then the Department of Health puts blocks in the way that prevent us from doing it. It has to be better joined up, which is not the strategy we have at the moment.’

A staggering 98 per cent of Britons who take at-home coronavirus tests do not get results within 24 hours, according to latest NHS Test and Trace figures. 

The longer they go without a diagnosis, the less likely they are to isolate and risk passing the disease onto others.

Sir Paul said small labs like his had been turning around the majority of tests in 12 hours. 

He added: ‘What we’ve done in the Crick is to re-purpose our academic research laboratories to actually provide testing for 10 hospitals in North London, and 90 care homes. 

‘We’ve set it up so that we have a 12-hour turnaround, mostly, all within less than 24 hours. And it works very effectively. 

‘Now that allows the information to be got back very quickly to patients, to those working in hospital environment and for the most vulnerable so that isolation can take place. 

‘The way we set it up is that we have some full-time researchers there who are running it, but we also have a cohort of volunteers who will spend maybe a day a week working there but can continue their normal work otherwise because they are only spending one day a week in the testing. 

‘This has been really effective. I’ve started calling it, following the boats analogy, the lifeboat labs because they are small, they are local, they are manned by volunteers and those volunteers have a sense of civic duty.’ 

The lack of tests has seen Britons being told to drive hundreds of miles, sometimes to different countries within the UK, to get a swab.

There have also been reports of surgeons having to cancel operations because patients can’t access a test. 

It came as Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called for Mr Hancock to resign after a ‘disastrous’ string of errors during the crisis.

Speaking on Good Morning Britain about the most recent Excel bungle, Ms Rayner said he should ‘hang his head in shame’ and step down.

She added: ‘It’s completely unbelievable, they [the Government] have made us a laughing stock across the world.

‘This used to be one of the democracies that everyone was proud of and yet know it’s a joke.’

Pressed on whether the health secretary should resign, she said: ‘Well, yes, he’s a disgrace. The Government is. I’d get rid of him tomorrow. I believe that the whole of their frontbench is an absolute disaster for this country.’

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson begged university leaders to send him hundreds of academics to save Britain’s  testing system from collapse.

The Prime Minister wrote to the bosses of more than 50 top universities and medical schools to request their ‘urgent support’ to man the Government’s new mega-labs, which are short of staff as demand surges. 

He appealed for 400 ‘technicians, post-docs or graduate students with molecular biology experience’ to staff the Lighthouse laboratories in Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Manchester, Newport and Glasgow, and for ‘qualified technicians/post-docs with management experience, to join the Test and Trace Laboratory Team to help manage our overall lab capacity’. 

He also urged the academics to sign up for six to 12 months ‘starting as soon as possible’ and promised the Government would reimburse them at their current university rates.

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