Closure of Scottish Covid-19 lab a 'missed opportunity' to expand routine testing

The decision to close a Scottish Covid-19 testing lab has been criticised as “extraordinary” and a “missed opportunity” to expand routine testing to healthcare staff and key workers during the pandemic.

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 4:45 pm
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the testing laboratory was "never designed to be a permanent provision." Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the testing laboratory was "never designed to be a permanent provision." Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

As revealed by The Scotsman, the University of Edinburgh has shut a specialist diagnostics laboratory set up to carry out as many as 1,000 Covid-19 tests a day.

The facility, designed to help NHS Lothian ramp up its testing capacity, opened in April, but was closed down in early July.

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The university said that over the summer period, the laboratory was receiving lower numbers of samples. It also said a demand for more research space informed the decision.

But with positive Covid-19 cases continuing to rise in the Lothians and nationwide, coupled with ongoing concerns over the need to rapidly build NHS testing capacity in order to reduce the spread of Covid-19, the laboratory’s closure has drawn cross-party condemnation from across Holyrood.

At First Minister’s Questions, Alison Johnstone, health spokeswoman for the Scottish Greens warned that the laboratory’s closure flew in the face of World Health Organisation guidance to ‘test, test’, test’, and said the decision not to deploying testing to the full was “clearly a policy choice” made by the Scottish Government.

However, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the laboratory was activated at the early stages of the pandemic, when there was insufficient NHS testing capacity.

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Questions over Covid-19 testing after 'shocking' decision to close Scottish laboratory

“It was never designed to be a permanent provision,” she explained. “The daily capacity in NHS Lothian since that was activated has more than doubled, and what that means is that labs like this one can return to the very important research work they had been doing.”

She said that the Scottish Government was also developing “regional hubs” to provide “longer-term, sustainable, additional NHS capacity,” including in the Lothians.

However, Ms Johnstone said it was not a case of “either or,” telling Ms Sturgeon: “The fact of the matter is that we could have been doing 1,000 more tests a day, and the First Minister will be aware that there was inadequate testing available for when the schools returned in August, which we now know was avoidable.”

She accused the Scottish Government was continuing to follow an “old and outdated” testing strategy, based largely on only testing people who present symptoms.

Ms Sturgeon replied that testing was carried out in line with clinical advice, stressing inconclusive evidence around the efficacy of testing asymptomatic individuals, and said there had been a “massive increase” in the numbers and groups being tested.

Earlier, Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour’s shadow health secretary, was among those to question the laboratory closure.

“Why was a Covid-19 lab ‘put into hibernation’ when we could have been using spare capacity to expand routine testing to all healthcare staff, other key workers and family caregivers?” she tweeted. “Bad policy decisions on testing continue to be made.

Donald Cameron, health spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: “This seems quite an extraordinary decision to be taking when we’re seeing Covid cases on the increase again.

“Jeane Freeman [the health secretary] must be upfront with the public and tell us whether she personally signed off the decision to close this lab.

“We are at a critical point in our fight against coronavirus, yet the Scottish Government deem it fit to have closed vital testing capacity.”

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