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There is quite a lot riding on having a well-functioning testing and contact tracing system, such as allowing business to keep operating, schools and universities to remain open, and millions to continue hoping they will enjoy “hugs at Christmas” along with other festive traditions.
It is vital for the NHS and public health professionals to swiftly respond to spikes in cases to break chains of transmission and ensure there is sufficient clinical capacity to look after the most sick safely.
Unfortunately, all is not running smoothly with the NHS Test and Trace programme. Indeed, at the risk of causing alarm, it is fair to report that it is having some difficulties.
This week it has emerged that rationing of tests to areas with the highest infection rate means people in some parts of the country are being told their nearest testing centre is hundreds of miles away.
Routine testing and contact tracing figures published by NHSTT caused one academic to observe that “the test and trace system overall appears to be showing some strain”, citing decreases in positive cases being traced and in contacts being reached. He also pointed out turnaround times for some tests are “deficient”.
We discovered one area where the testing regime appears to be showing strain – an email relaying an “urgent call for support from the pillar 2 [commercial labs]” to their colleagues in the pillar 1 labs run by NHS trusts and Public Health England because of a “surge in demand”.
It was a “short term call for support” made in the last days of August, asking for “additional capacity for next 2-3 weeks”.
The capacity problem in pillar 2 may stem from relaying on rapid-throughput systems that the NHS is hoping to roll out to labs but have yet to be widely distributed.
The department told us growing demand for tests means the pillar 2 capacity “is being fully utilised and in line with existing plans, the capacity is being quickly expanded”.
It pointed to a new Lighthouse Lab in the East Midlands that will be opened this month and new high-throughput machines that can process up to 150,000 tests a day. The department is gunning for having capacity for 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.