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 Biosample Centre, in Milton Keynes, has been repurposed for swab testing for coronavirus on a mass scale – up to 25,000 tests a day as some estimates suggested – using machines requisitioned from laboratories across the country.
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.
“Central coordination of testing is vital if we are to reach the scale needed to defeat this virus.”
Speaking anonymously, one official rejected criticism about the centre, saying PCR tests were not easy to deliver at scale.
Asked why it had taken so long to become fully operational, the official replied: “I would say: How have we managed to build so quickly?”
After struggling for some weeks to get a response from the government, many small labs are now conducting tests in numbers that come close to those achieved by the national centre.
A three-person lab in Oxford is running 100 tests a day for local NHS workers. The Crick Institute is running 500 a day, despite having sent a number of its most advanced PCR machines to Milton Keynes at the request of Mr Farrar.
The centre in Milton Keynes was “launched” by Mr Hancock on 9 April under the name “Lighthouse Lab”. The government described it as the first step in building “the biggest diagnostic lab network in British history.”
Asked why the Lighthouse Lab was still conducting tests manually, a department of health spokesperson told Sky News: “We are building a digital platform for our end to end testing process.
“As with scaling up the number of tests undertaken, we need to be sure that our digital platform is clinically safe before rolling it out.
“Whilst this happens we will also continue to use some manual processes.”
People familiar with the centre’s operations say manual testing has also been necessary because the machines, which come from American scientific equipment manufacturer Thermo Fisher, do not have the specialised brand-specific parts needed to run automatically.
The government asked labs to hand over their state-of-the-art Thermo Fisher 7500 ABI Fast machines, which can extract RNA automatically and test 96 samples per run, a move which left them reliant on a single manufacturer at a moment when global competition for equipment was at its most intense.
On Thursday, Thermo Fisher announced that it would supply all the equipment necessary to conduct 100,000 tests a day, the number Mr Hancock has promised the government will reach by the end of April.
This guarantee reassured industry figures, especially when Thermo Fisher’s chief operating officer told the BBC’s Today programme that the company would be able to manufacture the equipment in the UK, easing concerns about the pressure being placed on global supply chains.
“It’s a very important deal because it guarantees supply,” said Steve Bates, CEO of the Bioindustry Association.
“Building a high throughput factory has been a monumental effort and I believe it will be run very fast when it’s at capacity.”