• NHS labs’ declared covid lab testing capacity nearly doubles in three days
  • Exceeds planned 100,000 capacity by 60 per cent 
  • It appears that extra equipment and supplies have been given to labs in recent weeks, and declared this week
  • Concerns over reliability of supplies, training and validation

Test and Trace looks likely to hit its 500,000 daily covid testing target, after declaring huge leaps in NHS labs capacity over three days. 

On Sunday the reported total NHS capacity was 83,164 – on Monday this leapt to 134,112, then on Wednesday the figure was 161,869, a near doubling since the weekend.

A source involved in the testing programme said it was because new diagnostic equipment and supplies, of several kinds, had gone to labs over recent weeks, and a lot of it was declared by NHS England this week, ahead of the 31 October deadline.

Those involved in running the programme said on Twitter that the overnight 64 per cent increase on Monday was due to a “huge team effort between the NHS and Test and Trace” and “hard work by all the labs… and supply teams”. 

An NHS source said the service had been allocated more testing supplies, including reagent chemicals, by T&T, allowing the increase.

After major problems due to test shortages, government said in mid September there would be 500,000 daily test capacity by the end of October. The NHS agreed to increase its contribution to total capacity up to 100,000, up from 83,000 at that point.

The testing programme source said the 500,000 target was now likely to be met, with further increases in the NHS and “pillar two” independent labs imminent. Wednesday’s capacity figure was 468,612, if antibody tests, which are of little use, are excluded.

Pillar 2 independent lab capacity has increased about 90 per cent in the past two months, but this has been more gradual over the period. 

There have been major problems with test result turnaround times for about two months now, and limits on access, caused primarily by demand for tests running too close to supply.

A number of hoped-for increases from large new pillar two “lighthouse labs” have not materialised in recent weeks and it appears the NHS has moved to substantially overshoot its 100,000 agreement. Test and Trace is thought to have been asking NHS England to expand more quickly than it has been since early summer.

However, several pathology sources warned there were potential pitfalls from a rapid short-term expansion to meet a target. Some independent operators have during the summer professed large capacity and expansion hopes, but not been able to deliver, due to shortages of staff or supplies.

One said: “Supplies of reagents and consumables must keep up or shiny new kit is unhelpful.” Another said use of the new capacity would rely on training, supply of adequate reagents, and validation processes. “It will all work out in the end but [the] artificial October 31 target will just distort things.”

Several people also questioned whether pooling of samples had been used to rapidly grow the capacity, as T&T and NHS England have been discussing its introduction recently. This involves testing several people’s samples together, and only retesting each one separately if there is a positive result from the pool.

It can expand capacity substantially but can be difficult and risky. But a senior source said it was not yet widely introduced in the NHS, and not playing a big part in the capacity figures.

The Department of Health and Social Care, which houses T&T, and NHS England, were asked for comment.

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