Britain’s Covid-19 testing programme was in disarray last night after it emerged 43,000 people who were probably infected with the virus were given the all-clear, causing a spike in cases.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) was facing questions about how it missed the testing blunder when it had been spotted more than a month ago by scientists and amateur data analysts.
Yesterday, NHS Test and Trace suspended operations at the Immensa Health Clinic laboratory, of Wolverhampton Science Park, in the West Midlands, after it emerged people had received negative PCR test results despite testing positive with lateral flow devices.
Experts warned the error would likely lead to tens of thousands more infections, as well as more hospital admissions and deaths, because huge numbers of people did not self-isolate.
Dr Kit Yates, of the University of Bath, said there had been a “concerted effort” among experts to highlight the “strange results” but little had been done until recently.
“People have been gaslighted into thinking they haven’t got Covid and they have been going into schools and offices and potentially infecting tens of thousands of other people,” he said.
“We should have been getting people to isolate but without PCR you can’t convince your boss you need to isolate and PCR has been put on this pedestal and thought to be always better than lateral flow.
“It will lead to a spike in cases, and we’re already seeing that in places like Stroud. Currently we’re seeing rising cases in children but that is now starting to bleed through to older age ranges so this will impact on hospitalisations and deaths a few weeks down the line.”
The errors relate to test results given to people between September 8 and October 12, mainly in south-west England, but with some cases in the south-east and Wales.
In early September, scientists and data analysts pointed out that case numbers in the south-west seemed artificially low.
The Office for National Statistics’ infection survey had also recorded surging cases in the south-west, even though it was not apparent from the government’s daily coronavirus dashboard.
It is the first crisis for the UKHSA, which has recently replaced Public Health England after that organisation was criticised for its early handling of mass testing in the pandemic.
Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA, told the BBC that “feedback” and “queries” about testing issues had been coming through over the past two or three weeks from public health directors in the south-west.
She admitted, however, that it was only in the past few days that they had “dug right down” into the geography and discovered the testing discrepancies.
She said it was not yet clear what went wrong, adding that the laboratory was accredited “to all of the appropriate standards”.
The British government awarded Immensa a £119m contract last October to urgently “develop volume for PCR testing for Covid”.