Two new “megalabs” capable of processing a total of 600,000 diagnostic tests a day will be opened in the UK next year as the government seeks to bolster a testing operation bedevilled by capacity shortages and slow turnround times.
The government scaled back testing and tracing early in the pandemic in large part because of insufficient processing capacity in public labs. That decision is now regarded as having been one of the crucial errors in handling an outbreak that has so far cost more than 50,000 UK lives.
A concerted push to build up capacity, particularly through the creation of a network of so-called “Lighthouse” labs, allowed Matt Hancock, health secretary, to meet his target of 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. But the Financial Times disclosed last month that ministers have had to retreat from an ambition to get to 2m tests a day by the end of the year.
When operating at full stretch, the two new labs announced on Monday, located in Leamington Spa and Scotland, will each add 300,000 to the UK’s daily testing capacity, not only for Covid but conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
Mr Hancock said: “We didn’t go into this crisis with a significant diagnostics industry, but we have built one, and these two megalabs are another step forward.”
The new labs would strengthen the national infrastructure to respond to future epidemics and improve care for other diseases, such as cancer, he said, “and confirm the UK as a world leader in diagnostics”.
Innovative technology made in Britain would be used in both labs, including automation, robotics and consumable medical kit, the health department said. It added: “This means more tests will be processed more quickly and at a lower cost, and therefore faster turnaround times for test results.”
In the week to November 4, the most recent period for which data is available, only 37.6 per cent of in-person tests returned results within 24 hours. This is a rise from 26.4 per cent the previous week but a long way from the target of 100 per cent by the end of June that was set by prime minister Boris Johnson.
Dido Harding, who runs the test-and-trace programme and is interim director of the National Institute for Health Protection, said that as more test sites were opened, and mass coronavirus testing pilots were rolled out, “we need to keep expanding the UK’s testing capacity, for now and the future”.
The addition of the two new labs would not only mean more tests, “but it will also mean they can be processed more quickly, and the time it takes to receive results is reduced”, she added.