Local laboratories will be used in Devon to tackle a backlog in processing coronavirus tests.
County health chiefs heard that that people trying to book a check have been sent as far away as Cardiff – a 260-mile round-trip of four-and-a-half hours.
The Local Outbreak Engagement Board was told on Thursday that the issue had been raised at the ‘highest possible level’, writes Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Clark.
Devon’s deputy director of public health Steve Brown said the challenge was lab capacity, not the issuing of tests.
He added that the national solution was to increase capacity from around 250,000 tests a day to 500,000 by the end of October.
Mr Brown said additional local lab capacity through the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) is set to be used in Devon if required.
He added that around 6,500 tests are carried out in the county on a weekly basis – over and above the ‘pillar one’ checks in hospitals and care homes.
Mr Brown said that the finite capacity of labs in Devon would not allow for all the ‘pillar two’ tests to be analysed locally if there were national shortages.
He added that part of the shortage in capacity was being caused by around 25 per cent of tests being used on people who were either not displaying any symptoms or had not been instructed to take one.
Mr Brown told the meeting: “The stories about people sent many miles away for tests appears to be as the computer only recognise the distance as the crow flies.
“This has been raised at the highest possible level.
“The challenge is about lab capacity, not the tests being issued, and the national solution is to ramp up lab capacity.
“Locally, there are challenges for us and one of the immediate solutions is to utilise some local labs.
“If people are having trouble accessing tests, they can email the CCG and get access to a test that way.
“It is a short-term solution and we only have a limited capacity, but we are asking local labs to do more, with a focus around the most vulnerable people, schools and some workplaces.
“This is a national problem, but we are aware of it locally, and we are trying to put in solutions to it.”
University’s £800k spend on testing
Recognising the pressure that could be placed on labs, the University of Exeter has agreed a partnership with Halo, the UK’s first commercial provider of saliva-based PCR tests for Covid-19.
The agreement will ensure rapid testing of students and staff at campuses in the city and Cornwall, providing both same-day and next -day results.
Professor Janice Kay, provost and senior deputy vice-chancellor at the university, said the initiative had cost it around £800,000.
But she added it was designed because ‘we didn’t want to put a pressure on local testing resources’.
Track and Trace success
Mr Brown said the NHS-led Test and Trace system is performing well for Devon.
The meeting heard that, since its launch on August 16, 86 per cent of people were reached and 68 per cent of close contacts were identified.
Complex cases, which are referred to the Public Health England Local Health Protection Team for follow-up, were currently reaching 100 per cent of cases, said Mr Brown.
He added: “Test and Trace is only as good as people filling in the data and only works when people are honest.”
Testing access issues
A Devon County Council spokesperson said: “There have been some recent problems with access to Covid-19 testing.
“This is not unique to Devon and is a result of national laboratory capacity being stretched and having to prioritise analysing tests for areas with a higher prevalence of Covid-19 cases.
“We have put additional local arrangements in place to boost local testing availability until national capacity can be increased.
“We are asking Devon residents to book a test as normal via the government website.
“However, if they are unable to book a local slot then they can email firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be supported to access local testing.
“We are also reiterating messaging that individuals should only get tested if they have symptoms of coronavirus, outside of any asymptomatic testing programmes, and that care homes remain a top priority for testing.”
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