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Cambridgeshire care home managers alarmed that government has not renewed efficient Covid-19 testing contract

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Care home managers have been left aghast that an efficient Covid-19 testing contract that has helped them catch coronavirus infections early is being ended by the Department of Health and Social Care.

Cambridge Clinical Laboratories (CCL) has been conducting 1,000 tests a week for staff and residents at up to 20 care homes in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough for the last few weeks, turning around the results within 24 to 48 hours.

Dr Tony Cooke , CEO of Cambridge Clinical Laboratories. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Tony Cooke , CEO of Cambridge Clinical Laboratories. Picture: Keith Heppell

It has identified positive cases among asymptomatic individuals, who care homes have then isolated to prevent infection spreading.

CCL is part of the Covid-19 Volunteer Network of private labs that, between them, are able to offer about 5,000 tests a week nationwide.

The network finally won approval from NHS Innovation to offer testing, paid for by the NHS, in May and began the service in early June. But there is no sign of the monthly contract being renewed.

Tony Cooke, CEO of Milton-based CCL, told the Cambridge Independent: “We’ve started to give a very good service and they are feeling safe.

“It’s all going tremendously well and just as we get to a point where everything was working, we don’t know whether it’s going to continue.

“We are finding those people who are asymptomatic, but can still spread it. Up to 40 per cent of the infected population could be asymptomatic.

“Two weeks ago, we did 1,000 tests and found 13 positives in the Peterborough area.

“In some cases, they had symptoms and had been in isolation and were at the end of their infection, but we had one individual who came up with a slight positive. We told them to isolate and we retested them the following week and they were a very strong positive, so we had caught them right at the beginning of the infection cycle.”

Care home managers have been unequivocal in their support for the testing regime when approached by the Cambridge Independent.

Dr Tony Cooke , CEO of Cambridge Clinical Laboratories. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Tony Cooke , CEO of Cambridge Clinical Laboratories. Picture: Keith Heppell

Riet Jones, manager of Cambridge Manor care home, said: “We are extremely disappointed with the action the government is taking. The service we have, and still, receiving has been second to none.

“On a daily basis we can get CCL to test our swabs, so we can provide a weekly testing service for staff and every two weeks for our residents. Supported by families as this means we can send swabs back in smaller quantities and get results within 24 to 48 hours.

“The service also supports us with testing newly appointed staff as well as volunteers before they start, thus giving more protection from undetected/ asymptomatic cases.”

Aliyyah-Begum Nasser, director at Askham Village Community, said: “CCL have been invaluable to us at Askham. They provide a professional, responsive service that is unparalleled.

“Being able to offer our staff the opportunity to test regularly gives us all peace of mind. We know that asymptomatic carriers are one of the biggest risks to the spread of this disease.

“Using CCL’s service we have been able to identify members of our team who fall into this category and take necessary precautions.

“With this testing service, we have also been able to give assurances to staff members who have vulnerable people at home such that they feel comfortable returning to work – where their support is much needed.

“Withdrawal of the service will be yet another blow to the very people who have been working throughout this crisis keeping vulnerable people safe.”

And Amar Marjara, owner and director of Peterborough Care, which runs five homes, said CCL’s offer is a vast improvement on the previous regime.

“The issue we had originally was the turnaround time. There were different avenues to apply for test kits and various organisations. Then it was two weeks or longer before we got the results - and that’s where the risk is posed. We were working blind,” he said.

“There is a test centre in Peterborough, but it’s quite remote, and a lot of care staff don’t drive. There was no consistency with staff testing.

“With CCL, we introduced weekly testing for staff and residents. It gives us complete flexibility. It’s worked like an absolute treat. The turnaround is 24 to 48 hours.”

Dr Tony Cooke , CEO of Cambridge Clinical Laboratories. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Tony Cooke , CEO of Cambridge Clinical Laboratories. Picture: Keith Heppell

Some individuals who had tested positive for Covid-19, then tested negative in later tests, suggesting they were free of the infection, had subsequently been found to still have the virus in their system by CCL.

“I think it’s because of the quality of the testing they are doing. I think it’s more sensitive,” said Amar. “We need to know. An outbreak in a care home can spread like wildfire.

“We haven’t had new outbreaks - but we could have had, as we would have assumed they were virus-free.

“The only way to really combat this is an efficient testing system. You could go weeks where everyone is negative, which is great, but you are working for when that positive hits.

“Without CCL, we will be back to square one again to an inefficient system through government channels that wasn’t working.

“Why isn’t someone looking at what we are doing and saying that is how we should be working? It’s a no-brainer.”

Tony described the decision not to renew as “absolutely bizarre”.

“I think it is either inaction or it is about taking back control from the private sector,” he said.

But there has been criticism that a focus on centralised approaches, as opposed to the swift mobilisation of an army of smaller private labs, was one of the reasons the UK’s testing regime was slow to get off the ground compared, for example, to Germany, where decentralised testing is well-established.

Tony suggested cost should not be the issue.

“It’s very cheap. The NHS pays us £55 per test for the full service - the provision of the test kit, the logistics, the sampling, getting it back to the lab, testing it and reporting it,” he said.

CCL has spent “close to £200,000” scaling its testing capabilities, but the investment is aimed to enable it to offer private tests and fulfil research contracts.

“We are working with Addenbrooke’s and other research organisations, so there are lots of other things going on, but the core we focused on was the care homes,” he said.

The Department for Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.

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