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The Tories have set up a parallel structure to the existing NHS laboratories network, involving big private companies, and a mixture of unidentified and unqualified staff. Meanwhile, NHS labs have not even been running at full capacity.
Why? It is clear the Tories are exploiting the crisis to establish private-sector medical testing networks - as a precursor to winding down NHS laboratories in the future.
The Tories have spent weeks trying to avoid making testing a central aspect of their coronavirus strategy, to the extent that the UK was criticised by the World Health Organisation. But NHS laboratories were more than ready to take on the extra work.
In many cases, workloads in the laboratories were significantly reduced. Fewer people are attending GPs' surgeries and specialist clinics, so the number of other tests requested fell. In addition, a policy of prioritising the most urgent cases prevailed in the laboratories in anticipation of a large increase of coronavirus tests.
The NHS laboratory that I work in has spare capacity and a willing workforce, but even after a month nothing has come of it, despite a new 'assay' (test) being validated. Daily testing capacity, however, has reached 73,400, so there is plenty of capacity within the NHS generally to take on the work.
The Tories are clearly looking outside the NHS to have the tests done. They are setting up 50 new regional testing centres, and three new 'super-labs'. This is instead of fully using the existing NHS laboratories - 44 of which are underused, according to a former director of the World Health Organisation.
The super-labs decision was taken behind closed doors, with no consultation with the trade unions involved. They are reportedly to be run by "highly qualified staff and volunteers," leaving existing NHS staff and our unions wondering where these other "highly qualified staff" will come from, and what exactly the role of "volunteers" would be.
Health journalist John Lister reports that new 'lighthouse labs' are being set up through a partnership. It includes the government's Department of Health and Social Care, the science business networking organisation Medicines Discovery Catapult, not-for-profit processing facility UK Biocentre, and the University of Glasgow.
In Cheshire, the project is reported to be 'working closely' with pharmaceutical multinational Astra Zeneca. In Glasgow, it is linked with drug research firm BioAscent Discovery Ltd, and big pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline is also involved.
Equipment for these laboratories has been borrowed from universities and other organisations across the UK. In addition, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are setting up an entirely private-sector super-lab in Cambridge.
So much for the praises heaped daily on the NHS by the Tories at the moment. It's nothing more than a PR exercise while they pursue their aim of destroying the NHS.
NHS workers in NHS facilities should do this vital work, adequately funded, on trade union conditions, working in conjunction with universities where appropriate. Private companies should have resources requisitioned, not be put in control!
The coronavirus response must be about saving lives and preventing suffering - not about undermining the NHS in order to make profits for big business.
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Article dated 5 May 2020
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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