Mystery still surrounds the opening date of a Covid testing ‘mega-lab’ planned for Leamington - which is expected to employ about 1,800 people.
Despite questions being put to the Government, the Department for Health of Social Care has not given any specific answers – and some workers have been left in limbo.
Back in November last year, the Government announcement that Leamington was one of two places selected for a huge laboratory for Covid testing nationwide.
It was mean to open in January – but nothing happened.
Now the Government has said it will be ready ‘in the spring’ – but many who are due to start work there said they have still not heard back from their employers.
On top of that, the local MP Matt Western (MP for Warwick and Leamington) is one of many people who have raised questions about who will be running the huge site – the NHS or private companies?
The Government said the laboratories will, in the immediate term, be dedicated to Covid-19 testing for the National Testing Programme and when at full capacity, each lab will be able to process up to 300,000 tests a day.
We have put our own questions to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) about the opening times and who will be running it. Initially they did not reply to us. But when we published this story online this week, they sent over a statement - however, it did not answer our specific questions.
The statement read: “The Royal Leamington Spa laboratory will be an essential part of the largest network of diagnostic testing facilities ever created in British history, and is expected to start processing tests soon.
“This new laboratory is being set up by world-leading scientists, with decades of experience, and will expand our testing network, which has already conducted over 174 million tests.
Recruitment of the laboratory’s workforce is ongoing, with a clear focus on attracting staff from local areas, universities and further education.”
They did also repeat the line that they hoped the laboratory will be still be ready for the ‘spring’.
And the department said all of the equipment and skilled lab staff required to operate the lab’s first line are already in place, and teams are currently conducting safety checks and equipment operational assurance as part of the final validation processes before starting to process live tests.
But we are not the only ones to draw a frustrating blank.
When Mr Western MP stood up recently in Parliament and put his question to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, he was brushed off without an answer – although Mr Hancock’s tetchy reply had more to do with Mr Western’s barbed comment about his financial gains.
Putting the political pointing scoring aside, Mr Western’s question went as follows: “Obviously vaccines are important but so is testing.
“Six months ago to the day the Health Secretary told us that the UK would open two new mega-laboratories in early 2021 to double the country’s capacity for carrying out Covid-19 tests.
We were then advised it would open in early spring. The one in Scotland was cancelled, the Leamington one remains surrounded in secrecy.
“Can you tell us what is going on?
“And can he confirm when the place will open and that staff will actually be employed by the NHS?”
Mr Hancock’s reply was: “We have a PCR testing capacity in this country of many hundreds of thousands more than we use each day. The Leamington Spa project is incredibly important.
People working there are doing a magnificent job.”
Mr Western says he believes the laboratory will be operated by NHS Test and Trace while private recruitment firms are being used to hire staff rather than directly through the NHS – prompting outsourcing fears.
The Labour MP, who has been investigating now for months, said: “This is a scandal waiting to happen.
“I have heard from distressed residents waiting months to start jobs, many completely without income.
“I have heard from scientists who fear the lack of regulation, poorly qualified staff and mismanagement at the facility could be reminiscent of the issues with the Milton Keynes laboratory.
“I have heard from NHS groups who are concerned about the undercutting of existing services, ‘stealth privatisation’ and outsourcing of vital healthcare assets.
“Yet the DHSC has ignored letters, emails and questions from the media – which is unacceptable and keeps the public in the dark.
“We need complete transparency. There have been too many failures and too much taxpayers’ money squandered by this Government for us to allow ministers to avoid accountability in the way they are at the moment.”
Recently, there has been a bit more activity at the proposed site at the old Wolsley buildings off Tachbrook Road/Queensway – but many people who have been offered jobs there still don’t know what is going on.
Mr Western says he has been contacted by scores of residents in his constituency who have signed contracts to begin working at the laboratory but have heard nothing from recruiters for months.
He added that they have lost out on crucial wages during a pandemic and left in chaos – while some were directed to sign non-disclosure agreements.
For many, no fixed start date has been confirmed.
Back in March, the DHSC said: “The timetable for the opening for the Royal Leamington Spa laboratory has always been early in 2021 which is very ambitious.
“A laboratory of this nature would normally take years to design and build, whereas we intend to start operations within six months of acquiring the lease on the building. I am pleased to say that it is still on track to start processing tests as planned from spring 2021.
“The laboratory is publicly owned and will be operated by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) as part of the NHS Test and Trace laboratory network; it is not, and will not, be privately owned or operated.”
The mega-lab site is in Cllr Jonathan Chilvers’ south Leamington constituency said the communication between the Government and the local officials has been a major problem.
“The mega-lab have a massive project on their hands which could be great for the area, but by not communicating properly with residents or local businesses they’re not doing themselves any favours,” he said.
“We know that setting this up at short notice is difficult, but please talk to us rather than just telling us every little thing is top secret.
“I want this to be successful, but I also want answers on how they’re going to deal with the extra traffic they’re creating, transparency on who large contracts are going to. And a fair shot for local businesses. Normally an employment site this big would pay an upfront financial contribution to deal with traffic issues, but this time they’ve been let off planning permission for up to two years by the government, leaving someone else to pick up the tab.”
There is also concerns among those who will be working alongside the new laboratory - such as the University of Warwick.
Professor Dr Colin Fink, medical director of the infectious disease rapid diagnostic company Micropathology Ltd – based in the University of Warwick Science Park – said: “I hear that the problem of no clinical governance and unskilled staff at the mega-laboratory means that the it remains non-functional.
“Service engineers are continuously being called there because equipment is broken due to the lack of skill or understanding of those trying to operate it.
“The risks of failing standards of operation, as shown on the BBC for the Milton Keynes lab, are all too apparent.”
We will, of course, let you know if we hear anything...