‘Test and trace’ failure – another nail in NHS’ coffin?

Unite survey shows govt relies on private labs while sidelining NHS facilities and staff

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As the UK population faces Covid-19 restrictions until next spring, the mistakes in the government’s ‘test and trace’ policy have been cruelly exposed and there now needs to be a complete revaluation by ministers.

The stark reality is that there has been too much reliance on the private sector when it comes to laboratory testing for coronavirus and not enough investment in long-established NHS facilities.

Unite, in its recent Biomedical Scientist Covid-19 survey, highlighted the under-use of NHS science facilities and resources while the crisis over the nationwide gaps in the Covid-19 testing regime escalated over recent months.

NHS labs ‘sidelined’

The survey reveals Unite members’ continuing unhappiness at the government’s reliance and priority given to the seven Lighthouse Laboratories, with private sector involvement, while long-established NHS facilities are being apparently sidelined when it comes to investment.

And Unite is not alone in its growing concerns. The results of YouGov’s coronavirus tracker in the middle of September showed that the proportion of Britons who approve of the way the government has responded to the pandemic has fallen to its lowest level yet.

Just 30 per cent think the government has handled the issue of Covid-19 well, with 63 per cent saying they have handled it badly.

However, the roots of the current crisis in the mosaic that is ‘public health’ has been long in maturing. Public health is all embracing from Covid-19, the obesity crisis, dietary advice to preventing domestic violence – and it is not an ‘add-on’ to the health of the nation.

We can trace the present imbroglio confronting the ‘test and trace’ system back to the flawed 2012 Health and Social Care Act, the brainchild of the then health secretary Andrew Lansley, which accelerated the fragmentation and privatisation of the NHS which has resulted in misdirected and over-generous contracts to profit-hungry outsourcing companies, such as Serco.

The repeal of this disastrous act would be the first step in restoring the NHS to the principles on which the health service was founded in 1948. Such a move would need be accompanied by a massive financial boost to the NHS to repair the services that have suffered from a decade of Tory austerity.

Staff pay needs urgent attention

To retain the necessary expertise in public health, the pay – and morale – of NHS staff also needs urgent attention. Unite, which has 100,000 members in the health service has demanded that NHS workers should receive an early pay rise of 15 per cent or £3,000, whichever is greater before the current three-year deal ends next April to make up for the ‘lost’ pay in real terms since 2010.

This is the important context for the Unite report has been sent to health and social care secretary Matt Hancock, and the chair of the Commons health and social care select committee Jeremy Hunt, as well as MPs.

The survey said, Concerns about under-utilisation of NHS resources were matched by concerns around the introduction of the new Lighthouse Laboratories and the impact this was having on NHS services.

“Broadly these concerns focused on the quality of services provided, the diversion of resources from the public sector and the decision making, and transparency process used to commission these new laboratories.

“Healthcare science staff and their trade unions have been left in the dark regarding these processes.”

More than 85 per cent of the survey’s respondents agreed that there was concern over the service quality from the Lighthouse Laboratories and over 90 per cent concurred that there were worries about the transparency and contracting arrangements for these laboratories.

In contrast, only 38 per cent said their NHS laboratories were working at full capacity, but there was near unanimous support for further investment in NHS labs, so they are well-placed to undertake the mass testing of millions envisaged by Operation Moonshot.

We feel very strongly that Operation Moonshot, if it ever comes to pass, should not become an ill-deserved payday bonanza for private healthcare companies which had fallen short during the pandemic to the extent that they have asked the NHS to help out.

The government’s obsession with involving the private sector in the Covid-19 ‘trace and test’ regime has been shown to be flawed and misguided, as more and more people report difficulties in trying to get a test near to their home.

NHS is best placed

If ministers have learnt any lessons from Covid-19 it should be that the NHS, with the right level of investment, is best placed to provide laboratory testing for such a global pandemic as we are currently going through.”

Long-established NHS laboratories with a wealth of professional experience and statutorily regulated staff, built up over decades, appear to have been marginalised in the battle against coronavirus – this has been a huge mistake.

More generally, the commissioning of public health nursing (health visitors and school nurses) services in England need to brought back under the auspices of the NHS from local government and there needs to be a new public health nursing implementation plan to give children and families the specialist and high quality support they need from community nurses.

The swingeing cuts to public health budgets need to reversed and the abolition of Public Health England should not be used to relegate the importance of accountable, responsive and skilled public health teams across the country.

The structure and NHS system in England is broken – and has been for some time. We call on the NHS to receive the massive investment it requires after the lack of funding during the ‘lost’ decade. We demand an end of privatisation and marketisation of the NHS and social care – and the creation of a new National Care Service.

Our recent report on biomedical scientists only adds to the mountain of evidence for such a move.

The survey was distributed on two dates in June by email to all Unite members within biomedical science. This snapshot survey generated 388 responses from across the UK.


Read the survey report for yourself

This article first appeared in Public Sector Focus

Co-author Ian Evans will hopefully appear on tonight’s (October 30) BBC 2’s Newsnight programme

By Gary Owen, Unite lead officer for healthcare science and Ian Evans, chair of the Unite healthcare science committee

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