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

A leading Scottish university has closed a laboratory set up to carry out up to 1,000 Covid-19 tests a day, in what has been described as a “shocking” and “unthinkable” decision during the pandemic.

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 7:00 am
The Covid-19 testing laboratory was based at the Western General in Edinburgh. Picture: Shutterstock
The Covid-19 testing laboratory was based at the Western General in Edinburgh. Picture: Shutterstock

The University of Edinburgh’s specialist diagnostics service laboratory, which opened in the spring, was designed to assist NHS Lothian’s efforts to ramp up testing capacity.

However, the laboratory has since been closed, a decision the university said stemmed from lower numbers of samples being received over the summer, as well as a demand for space as its research laboratories reopened after lockdown.

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It also said the closure was guided by the “additional challenge” of maintaining social distancing requirements.

It is unclear if the facility ever reached full capacity or how many tests it carried out over the period it was operational, which stretched from late April to early July. The laboratory was based at the university’s Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine (IGMM) at the Western General Hospital.

But at a time when there are fears of how the testing system would cope with a potential second wave of the virus, the move has sparked questions over why the laboratory was not receiving enough samples.

It comes amid growing warnings that Scotland needs to rapidly build NHS testing capacity in order to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said earlier this month she has been assured by the UK Government that access to testing will not be restricted and Scotland will have a “fair share” of laboratory capacity to process tests.

She explained that a “capacity constraint” across the UK testing system was delaying test results because labs are struggling to keep up with demand.

The Scottish Greens, who are calling for a vast upsurge in Covid-19 testing so as to assess up to 100,000 people every day, said there were “serious questions” to be asked following the closure of the laboratory.

Alison Johnstone, the party’s health spokeswoman, said: “It is shocking that an NHS testing lab has closed during the global pandemic. This lab closed while the First Minister was rejecting my proposals for regular testing of frontline staff, a call backed by the Royal College for Emergency Medicine, the Royal College for Nursing and Scottish Carers.

“The lack of testing in Scotland has been a policy choice. The World Health Organisation has been crystal clear from the very beginning that this virus can only be controlled through the vigorous application of testing, testing, testing.”

She added: “The reasons for this closure are very telling. There are serious questions about why a Covid-19 testing lab was not receiving enough samples.

“Scotland needs to stop falling back on the failed privatised UK system and start using our NHS testing labs to upscale to mass testing in Scotland. Allowing them to gather dust and close should have been unthinkable.”

According to Covid-19 data published on the Scottish Government’s website, the number of positive cases in the NHS Lothian area has jumped significantly over the course of the month.

The cumulative figure stood at 3,659 on 15 September. A fortnight later, it had risen to 4,631.

There were no people in the area with a recently confirmed infection in hospital in the first two-and-a-half weeks of the month. As of 29 September, that figure had spiked to 16.

A spokesman for the University of Edinburgh said: “The university IGMM was pleased to support the NHS’s efforts to increase capacity for diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 infections by hosting and staffing an NHS Lothian diagnostics service laboratory.

“The facility opened in April. Over the summer, however, the need for the service declined. Lower numbers of samples were being received and there was a demand for space as our research laboratories re-opened, which perform important medical research including on SARS Co-V2.

“Due to this, and the additional challenge of social distancing requirements, the decision was taken to close the testing facility.”

He added: “In light of the current increase in testing requirements, an alternative university site has been offered to the NHS and is currently being considered.”

Dr Tracey Gillies, medical director of NHS Lothian, said: “At the start of the pandemic, NHS Lothian like other boards in Scotland reached out to academic partners and commercial companies to look at ways of dealing with the surge in demand for sample testing.

“We were pleased to partner with the University of Edinburgh to help boost our capacity. The IGMM hosted and staffed an NHS Lothian diagnostics service laboratory from April 2020. Over the summer, the need for the service was reduced and the service was put into hibernation.

“As the university labs returned to research work, the decision was taken not to reactivate the testing facility. We currently have sufficient capacity, and indeed we recently tested our 100,000th sample, but we are looking at new ways of working in the future to meet increasing demand, if required.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “This laboratory was activated during the early stages of the pandemic to temporarily bolster NHS capacity and was never designed to be a permanent solution. As capacity increased it was put into hibernation and is now standing down in favour of more long-term, sustainable solutions such as regional hubs.

“These three larger labs will be spread across Scotland and will significantly increase our NHS lab capacity. This will allow us, for example, to migrate care home worker testing, which currently goes through the UK government Lighthouse facility, to these new regional hubs and will help make sure turnaround times are as fast as we need them to be. It will also free up capacity within the Scottish share of Lighthouse for other testing priorities, such as processing tests from our new walk-in centres.

“Meanwhile we continue to work closely with the UK government to continue to resolve testing capacity issues at its labs and with other partners, including Edinburgh University, to increase capacity in the NHS.”

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