Monday, 25 May 2020

Government agrees deal with covid testing network

Government agrees deal with covid testing network

A PROJECT launched by an entrepreneur from Henley to help small laboratories provide coronavirus testing for frontline healthcare staff has signed a multi-million pound contract with the Government.

Mike Fischer founded the Covid-19 Volunteer Testing Network with the aim of recruiting volunteer labs across the UK to carry out thousands of tests a day for GPs, NHS workers and care staff.

Now it has the backing of the Department of Health and Social Care, which will fund tens of thousands of tests under the two-month contract.

The Government funding will substantially increase the number of labs to be converted to carry our testing by helping to pay for the necessary equipment and consumables.

Mr Fischer, 69, said: “I’m absolutely delighted. It’s a great endorsement of the whole concept of the network.

“I’m sure it’s the first of its kind in the country and, as far as I know, the first of its kind in the world.

“Now we can really start growing the network’s activities. We have been developing relationships with labs on the basis that a contract would be arriving.

“We won’t transform the country’s ability to test but we will make a significant and distinctive contribution towards it.”

Mr Fischer wants the country to expand its covid-19 testing capacity for frontline workers and originally donated £1million to get the project going.

There are thousands of labs in the UK with the right equipment and expertise to carry out the tests but these are currently not being used.

Mr Fischer said: “It’s the first time the department has done a deal like this and, not surprisingly, it took a while to sort out. We had to work out a lot of details of how labs could be authoritatively signed off and quality issues dealt with for the Government to sign off on it.

“The contract and the arrangements we have got are excellent and very enabling. It means the labs will be formally accepted as providing as good a test as any other government-supported test facility.

“I think they are already anyway but this gives that assurance. We will continue to fund some to keep momentum going until they can cross over to being department-funded.”

Mr Fischer said the contract would also enable larger labs, previously not financially viable to include in the network, to be part of it once they had gone through the approval process.

Prior to the contract being signed, the network was carrying out about 600 tests a day.

This has reduced from the original 1,500 tests a day as some of its labs started dealing directly with the NHS and the Government.

Mr Fischer added: “When we launched the network there was no government programme to deal with any applications by commercial organisations or academic labs to do testing. All we wanted was a lot more testing to take place.

“We’re doing this at a time when the understanding of how much testing is going to be needed has grown dramatically.

“We believe that it is vital to test even asymptomatic frontline healthcare workers regularly. Even people who do not show symptoms may be carriers of the virus and transmit the infection to others. We don’t see any limit on how much testing the country is going to need.”

The network, which works in parallel with the Government’s centralised testing programme, now has six labs live testing hundreds of healthcare workers each day across 50 GP surgeries.

More than 20 more labs are expected to go live in the coming weeks. Network labs are testing health workers locally, so most are able to deliver same-day results.

They deliver swab kits to GP surgeries and care homes, then pick them up when they have been completed, reducing the need to drive long distances to a testing centre. This makes it easier for workers to be regularly screened and for asymptomatic cases to be identified quickly, which is vital for slowing the spread of the virus.

Mr Fischer is the director of SBL, an independent, non-profit medical research laboratory at Milton Park, Abingdon, which has been converted to test for covid-19. It was the inspiration for the network.

It is now providing hundreds of tests a week to NHS staff at 18 GP practices in Henley, Nettlebed, Sonning Common, Goring and Woodcote as well as some staff in care homes with a half-day turnaround.

These tests are giving hundreds of staff an indication of their current health status and the knowledge required to continue working.

Mr Fischer is running the project with two other entrepreneurs, Caroline Plumb and Tim Perkin.

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