Boris Johnson is begging university leaders to send him hundreds of academics to save Britain’s chaotic coronavirus testing system from collapse.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that the Prime Minister has written to the bosses of more than 50 top universities and medical schools to request their ‘urgent support’ to man the Government’s new mega-labs, which are short of staff as demand surges.
His plea comes as thousands of people across Britain are still unable to get coronavirus tests. Some have been advised they must travel hundreds of miles to have a swab and there were last week reports of five-hour queues at some walk-in centres in Greater Manchester.
Boris Johnson has pleaded with universities and medical schools to send him experts to allow him to staff his planned massive Covid-19 testing centres which are central to his plan to prevent a second spike
Scientists claim the problems stem from the Government’s network of privately run Lighthouse laboratories, which are now struggling to meet demand after scores of academics who helped set them up in March and April returned to their day jobs over the summer.
In his personally signed letter to university chiefs, Mr Johnson asks that ‘experienced staff, who have already helped to establish the Lighthouse laboratories, return and extend these programmes, training the next generation of staff’.
He appealed for 400 ‘technicians, post-docs or graduate students with molecular biology experience’ to staff the Lighthouse laboratories in Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Manchester, Newport and Glasgow, and for ‘qualified technicians/post-docs with management experience, to join the Test and Trace Laboratory Team to help manage our overall lab capacity’. He also urged the academics to sign up for six to 12 months ‘starting as soon as possible’ and promised the Government would reimburse them at their current university rates.
Mr Johnson had vowed to establish a ‘world-beating’ £10 billion testing system that would complete 500,000 tests a day by next month. However, the system is currently processing just 200,000, with more than 70,000 of those being done by NHS labs. Official figures show the time it takes to process the test samples is also lengthening with care home residents waiting an average of 83 hours for their results – almost three times longer than in June.
Mr Johnson wants 400 qualified technicians to staff his major labs across the country
Jon Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, last night said: ‘This extraordinary begging letter from the Prime Minister is proof that testing, far from being world-beating, has become a fiasco on his watch. Ministers have left it too late to plan for this crucial moment. It was well-known that many Lighthouse lab staff would have to return to universities and research institutions and it was well known that with children going back to school and people coming back to the office that we would need extra testing and the capacity to process that testing.’
Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science and an expert on testing, said: ‘This letter from the Prime Minister demonstrates that there are staffing shortages in the Lighthouse labs. They have lost a lot of staff and now they are looking for the universities to replace staff or urging those who have left to come back.’
Sarah-Jane Marsh, the director of testing at NHS Test and Trace, last week admitted that people were unable to get coronavirus tests because laboratories had reached a ‘critical pinch-point’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs on the Health Committee last week that there had been ‘a problem with a couple of contracts’ that would be ‘sorted’ in a couple of weeks. Asked about Mr Johnson’s intervention, a Department of Health spokesman said: ‘We recently announced new facilities and technology to build our testing capacity further and process results faster. As this is built, more staff will be required and recruitment is taking place.’
lTrials of a Covid-19 vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University are to resume after a pause due to a reported side effect in a volunteer. The New York Times reported the volunteer had been diagnosed with transverse myelitis, an inflammatory syndrome affecting the spinal cord.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock welcomed the restart, adding: ‘This pause shows we will always put safety first.’
Covid-19 cases soar to 3,497 – the highest Saturday total since May
Britain recorded 3,497 new cases of coronavirus yesterday – the highest Saturday rise since May.
Nine more deaths were recorded, bringing the total number to 41,623.
Government scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport said the rising number of cases meant the UK was ‘on the edge of losing control’ as rules limiting social contact to six people come into force tomorrow.
However, the overall prevalence of the virus is still much lower than it was back in March when 100,000 people were estimated to be getting infected each day.
Public Health England (PHE) officials said last night that Covid-19 cases were surging among the over-50s and there were ‘worrying’ signs for high-risk groups. In the past week, infections rose by 92 per cent among people in their 50s, 72 per cent among those in their 60s, and 44 per cent among those in their 80s and older.
Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, said: ‘Although younger people continue to make up the greatest share of new cases, we’re now starting to see worrying signs of infections occurring in the elderly, who are at far higher risk of getting seriously ill.’
Ministers are continuing to come under pressure to remove children from the new ‘rule of six’ diktat, but Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove urged young people to ‘act in tune’ with the new rules and said freedom should be exercised ‘responsibly’.
Parents of larger families complained it was unfair that people could go to pubs, while they and their children were separated from friends and family.