Great Britain

Coronavirus: Hospital chiefs lack confidence in UK testing strategy

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NHS hospital bosses lack confidence in the government’s approach to testing for coronavirus and criticised the delays in turnaround times for test results as the health service looks to restore more services.

A new survey of more than 120 senior leaders from 112 NHS trusts found 60 per cent of bosses believed the government had the wrong approach to testing since the start of the pandemic and only a third supported recent efforts to improve the situation through the national test and trace service.

Asked to explain their lack of support, many respondents to the NHS Providers survey cited the shortage of testing and community contact tracing earlier in the pandemic and persistently slow turnaround times for testing results from private laboratories.

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One chief executive said: “We just don’t know what the plans are or what is being asked of us. We are left to make the best decisions we can for our patients. This would matter less if every trust had its own lab and we were dealing with a hospital-based problem. However, we are not. This is a population health issue that we cannot address effectively as individual providers.”

Another chief in a hospital trust emphasised the focus on controlling efforts from Whitehall.

They said: “[The government] has overestimated the benefits of centralised and national systems... at the same time the contribution of trusts and public health departments on the ground has been undervalued and (consequently) under-used.”

In a new report by NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, it said the current constraints on testing could act as a brake on efforts to restore routine NHS services.

Just over two thirds of NHS trusts said the were reliant on using laboratories at other hospitals for testing results because they lack their own labs. This is the case for all mental health, ambulance and specialist trust as well as most community trusts.

Many complained of delays in getting test results from third party labs quickly enough.

When trusts use labs in other hospitals only 16 per cent reported an average turnaround time within 24 hours, and this falls to 10 per cent when using Lighthouse Labs.

One chief said: “It is the speed of turnaround that is the issue. We are a hot spot and trying to place and manage patients without their status being known, is problematic.”

Almost half the trust bosses, 46 per cent, said NHS staff should be tested at least once every seven days as part of plans to restore NHS services.

Chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said: “An effective national test and trace service is a key part of the fight against Covid-19.

“Trust leaders have achieved a great deal in supporting and delivering their part of the government’s national testing strategy. But they’ve struggled with the limitations of the government’s approach to testing – the early lack of a clear strategy, the obsession with hitting an artificial 100,000 test target at the end of April and the time taken to realise the importance of local control and co-ordination.

“The creation of NHS Test and Trace has generated more confidence but these findings highlight real concerns about the challenges trusts continue to face.”

He said improvements were needed in turnaround times and more emphasis on local involvement was key.

“This has been the toughest year in the history of the NHS, but the worst may be yet to come if we can’t all pull together to build the national test and tracing regime we need for winter.”

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