A London council is thought to be the first in the country to set up its own same-day Covid testing service for key workers, sidestepping the nationwide system over delays in getting tests and results.
Barking and Dagenham council in east London said it had acted because of concerns about delays in accessing tests at the NHS testing sites in the borough. NHS testing centres are run by 40 private and public companies overseen by Deloitte, which has described its role as “supporting the creation of the testing programme”.
The Barking and Dagenham council leader, Darren Rodwell, told the Guardian that delays for people getting tested and receiving their results caused problems in schools, care homes and among frontline workers.
He said the scenario in which people who had been in contact with someone who might have had Covid who then had to self-isolate while they waited for the person to get a test had a significant knock-on effect on the delivery of council services.
“Some of these tests take forever and then we have to do things like get in supply teachers while teachers are self-isolating, not knowing if they have been in contact with an infected person or not. That can be expensive.”
The council is writing to about 7,000 frontline workers – school staff, care workers, refuse collectors and other key workers – letting them know that from the first week of November they can take part in a six-week pilot testing scheme running up to Christmas and operating at a former council depot, Pondfield House.
Council officials hope that with Covid cases predicted to rise in the coming weeks, this new initiative could slow the increase.
Rodwell said: “One resident contacted us yesterday and said they had been told there was an eight-day wait just to get a test at one of the testing sites in the borough. Our priority here are the young, the old and our essential services. We want to keep schools running, keep our old people who are vulnerable alive and ensure that vital services like refuse collection are not disrupted.
“Many people of all different political persuasions are concerned that the testing system hasn’t worked. All our essential workers will get a same day test if they need one and a quick turnaround result, we hope in 12-24 hours.”
The council is also working on contact tracing because of concerns that it is not working as well as it could. Several other councils including Sandwell, Preston and Hull are doing the same. The organisation We Own It, which wants public services to remain in public hands, has been mapping councils that have set up their own systems.
They have sent a letter to Matt Hancock signed by more than 80 public figures calling for the test-and-trace system to be managed by local authorities. The letter heavily criticises the national contact tracing system in England
Among the signatories are the leaders of councils across England including Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green councils, directors of public health represented by Unite’s public health specialist committee, and members of parliament.
We Own It’s campaigns officer, Pascale Robinson, said: “The number of coronavirus cases is rising rapidly. People are rightly worried about what this means for public health and for further lockdown style-restrictions. If we’re to get out of this safely, to save lives and hug our loved ones again, we desperately need a test, track and trace system that works. The government’s decision to outsource the system and sidestep the experience of local public health protection teams was a catastrophic mistake.”
Deloitte has been approached for comment.
• A reference to “NHS centres” in a sub-heading was amended on 23 October 2020 for the avoidance of doubt, as centres are not run by the NHS. The heading now refers to official test centres.