NHS laboratories being “sidelined” in Covid-19 testing regime, says Unite

Unite the Union has said that NHS laboratories are being “sidelined” in favour of underperforming private-sector facilities in the UK’s coronavirus testing regime and has called for an end to outsourcing.

Following a survey of Unite members working in the sector in June this year, the trade union has argued that there is “too much reliance on the private sector… and not enough investment in long-established NHS facilities”.

The research highlighted that “concerns about under-utilisation of NHS resources were matched by concerns around the introduction of the new Lighthouse Laboratories and the impact this was having on NHS services”.

It continued: “Broadly these concerns focused on the quality of services provided, the diversion of resources from the public sector and the decision making, and transparency process used to commission these new laboratories.

“Healthcare science staff and their trade unions have been left in the dark regarding these processes.”

Over 85% of respondents said that there were concerns about the service quality from the Lighthouse Laboratories and over 90% reported worries about the transparency and contracting arrangements for these facilities.

Unite lead officer for healthcare science Gary Owen said: “The government’s obsession with involving the private sector in the Covid-19 ‘trace and test’ regime has been shown to be flawed and misguided, as more and more people report difficulties in trying to get a test near to their home.

“If ministers have learnt any lessons from Covid-19 it should be that the NHS, with the right level of investment, is best placed to provide laboratory testing for such a global pandemic as we are currently going through.”

Only 38% said that their NHS centres were working at full capacity, and there was near-unanimous support for more support for NHS labs to prepare them to undertake the mass-testing ‘Moonshot’ project unveiled by Boris Johnson last week.

Chair of the Unite healthcare science committee Ian Evans added: “Long-established NHS laboratories with a wealth of professional experience built up over decades appear to have been marginalised in the battle against coronavirus – this has been a huge mistake.”

The private sector Lighthouse labs were set up in April by a project run by the accountancy firm Deloitte, bypassing the NHS and the public health network. They have operated separately from the NHS labs.

But the laboratories have reportedly been struggling to process the volume of test samples being sent to their facilities over the summer, and have had to request urgent assistance from NHS centres.

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