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National coronavirus testing centre only conducting 1,500 tests a day

The national coronavirus testing centre is still only conducting 1,500 tests a day, more than two weeks after it was declared open, Sky News has learned.

The figures come as leaked emails show how the government pursued a “command and control” testing strategy, rejecting offers of help from smaller laboratories as it scrambled to find equipment for its centralised “megalabs”.

The national coronavirus testing centre is still only conducting 1,500 tests a day, more than two weeks after it was declared open, Sky News has learned.

The figures come as leaked emails show how the government pursued a “command and control” testing strategy, rejecting offers of help from smaller laboratories as it scrambled to find equipment for its centralised “megalabs”.

The centre, which will be joined by similar facilities in Glasgow and Cheshire, was designed as a testing “factory” to tell frontline NHS staff – and eventually the wider population – whether or not they have the disease.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the daily press briefing on 24 March that “our new testing facility in Milton Keynes opens today and we are therefore on the ramp up of the testing numbers”.

Yet although the centre is praised by industry insiders who believe it will eventually be able to test tens of thousands of swab samples a day, it is currently only performing 1500 a day, officials admitted on Friday, with crucial elements of the tests still being conducted manually, even though the centre’s equipment is expressly designed to automate parts of the complex polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process used to analyse swabs.

A department of health spokesperson told Sky News that “the Milton Keynes laboratory was set up from a standing start” with “a massive national effort” and that the government was “focused on reaching 100,000 tests per day across the entire system by the end of April.”

Yet experts questioned why the government left the effort so late, after leaked emails showed the last-minute scramble to equip the centre began in the middle of March, when the UK death toll had already reached 104.

Late on 18 March, after a press briefing in which Boris Johnson announced that schools in England were closing for the foreseeable future, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Institute, emailed the heads of six of the UK’s biggest testing labs with what he described as “an extraordinary request”.

After explaining that “we estimate that we will potentially need to get to 200,000-300,000 tests a day at the peak of this pandemic”, Mr Farrar told the group that it was impossible to buy any PCR machines.

He asked the testing lab heads – including David Lomas of University College London (UCL) and Professor Sir Robert Lechler of King’s College London – “to work with us all at this time of great national need” by supplying a particular kind of PCR machine to the “dedicated diagnostic factories”.

Mr Farrar concluded: “In an ideal world, the army would pick these machines up in the next 24 hours – that is the sense we believe of the urgency.”

As other institutions were added to the list over the next days, such was the rush that one industry source told Sky News that when the initial letter arrived to tell universities their testing machines were being requisitioned, some suspected it was an attempt at fraud – although a department of health spokesperson said that “universities were given advance notice that this request was coming and we do not recognise this feedback.”

Anthony Costello, former director of mother, child and adolescent health at the World Health Organisation, said the urgency was necessary because 18 March was too late to begin building mass testing capacity.

“I thought this would have happened in early February,” he said.

“It is clear that from late January that testing was necessary to manage this. But on 12 March, Public Health England announced it was stopping all testing and tracing contacts across the country. This was a strategic decision.”

Mr Costello also criticised the decision to centralise testing, echoing the words of Paul Nurse, chief executive of London’s Francis Crick Institute, who told a committee of MPs this week that relying on three large facilities without support from smaller labs “wasn’t the wisest course of action”.

Leaked emails seen by Sky News show how the government and Public Health England rejected offers of additional testing from other laboratories in favour of a strategy it described as “command and control”, or “C2”.

In one internal communication from late March, an advisor to the testing programme criticised the idea that other laboratories might contribute because it diverges “the national command and control approach to testing”, citing the risk of competition for scarce resources and the possibility of confusion over a strict “national testing policy”.

Asked about this, Mr Costello said: “Public Health England like to control things because they’re used to small outbreaks. Clearly something of this scale you need people to have thought about mass testing.

“I was rather shocked that they’d only allowed, even in late March, laboratories that do this exact testing to go ahead.”

A department of health spokesperson told Sky News: “The response to COVID-19 is a national effort and we are hugely grateful for the help we have received from across a number of sectors.

READ MORE FROM SOURCE: https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-national-coronavirus-testing-centre-only-conducting-1500-tests-a-day-11971991