A Dispatches investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic has uncovered evidence of serious failings at one of the country’s largest Covid-testing laboratories.
The Dispatches programme, Lockdown Chaos: How the Government Lost Control, which airs on Monday 16 November at 9pm on Channel 4, sent an undercover reporter to work at Randox - the medical diagnostics firm based in Northern Ireland - as part of its examination of the Government’s NHS Test and Trace system. Randox runs one of the superlabs and has been given almost £500m in government contracts to analyse hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 tests from across Britain.
Evidence from the undercover footage includes:
- The Dispatches reporter being told that used tests sent to to Randox for analysis are sometimes not unpacked properly and accidentally discarded with cardboard packaging waste. An expert who viewed the footage and has run an NHS pathology lab for 10 year said that not only does this mean people not getting their test results, it would present a contamination risk to waste handlers. He added, “We would be shut down if we performed that way.” Randox responded to Dispatches, saying there has “never been an issue of samples being mistakenly disposed of”. Staff are adequately supervised and instructed on the need to ensure “samples are correctly processed”.
- Evidence that one particular type of red-lidded test sent to Randox frequently leaks and has to be voided meaning no results are available. Randox is aware the red lidded tubes are “more likely to leak” but say they do not manufacture them. They say they “raised this concern” with the Test and Trace programme coordinators in August. The DHSC told Dispatches on Saturday that they have “started UK-based tube manufacturing with these tubes designed to minimise leakage.” These “will be in place across all Lighthouse labs and will mitigate against void results.”
- During the undercover operation, the Dispatches reporter discovers that although leaking samples are often spotted whilst still in their plastic bag, this is not always the case. He finds that leaks from tests can spill over the gloves of employees and is told by one staff member that his gloves aren’t always thrown away but sprayed down with disinfectant. During his time in the lab, he was told to place leaking samples - whether loose or still inside their bags - into a cardboard box. Randox says a leaking tube “is not removed” from its bagging “under any circumstances,” so claim there is “no cross contamination.”
An expert told Dispatches that this way of dealing with leaking tubes shows a “cavalier approach to safety” and could lead to cross contamination and potentially wrong test results. Randox say the boxes are disposed of as “clinical waste” and there is “no cavalier approach to safety.”
- Once used tests are received by Randox and unpacked, they are wiped with a cloth which is occasionally sprayed with disinfectant. Undercover footage shows the tubes being freely mixed together with other test tubes in a cardboard tray. Experts who have viewed this footage believe this process risks cross-contamination of test samples. Randox denies this, telling Dispatches there is “no cross contamination.” Samples are “not mixed together” but “immediately placed in an upward position on a rack”
- The Dispatches reporter is told that Randox’s high-paying “VIP” clients, some of whom are from the rugby and travel sectors, are being given “priority” over some other tests. Randox denies VIP tests are given priority, saying it “does not prioritise private clients” under any circumstances and denies that “VIP” tests delay the processing of other tests.
- Samples from England may take twelve hours or more to arrive at the Randox laboratory in Northern Ireland. Unpacking of large shipments may take more than a working day, and sometimes more than 24 hours. Randox, which has no control over travel times to the laboratory, says it consistently “meets the agreed turnaround times,” and processes samples mostly within 24 hours from receipt.
- The Dispatches reporter is told that samples are colour coded according to a traffic light system based on how long it is since the sample was taken. Randox told us green is up to 38 hours, amber up to 77 and red up to 114 hours – nearly five days.
Dispatches showed its to evidence to Dr Tom Lewis, a consultant microbiologist, who has run a NHS laboratory for ten years. Commenting on what the reporter was told about tests mistakenly being thrown away with cardboard waste, he said: “There are cases of people that have picked up diseases from laboratories … So presumably the cardboard is non-infectious waste and you are then making it infectious by crushing a potentially positive sample into it. That would be illegal… We would be shut down if we performed in that way.”
Dr Lewis was also critical of the potential of cross-contamination of test samples. He said: “The potential for contamination here is quite significant. They were wiping down the tubes with an alcohol wipe. It might slightly reduce the contamination but it might increase the contamination, because you are actually moving things between tubes. It looked like they were using the same wipe for more than one tube.”
He continued: “For us, we would, as soon as they are unbagged they would go into a rack. So the tubes are never touching each other. To me that looked like a pretty shocking failure to pay attention to important detail.”
Dr Lewis added: “The way that leakage is dealt with needs to be done carefully, so for us we bag it and we would put it in a solid container for disposal. Just chucking it into a cardboard box in the middle of the room looks like a cavalier approach to safety to me. If you have got a sample that has leaked out of a tube and is in your unpacking environment then it is quite easy for that to get on to other tubes if that sample was positive, that would then get on to another tube and cause that to become positive. These are very sensitive tests they are using and it is very easy to get a false positive.”
The Dispatches reporter estimated that one in twelve of the red-lidded test tubes he handled leaked.
Dr Lewis said: “The main issue is you are not getting your result back so that is the main issue and if it is one in twelve of these red top swabs then a lot of people are not getting important results back. That would raise significant alarm bells to me and I’d expect that to be investigated all the way through from the person taking that swab, to the transport of that swab to how it is being dealt with in your unpacking area.”
Dr Lewis stressed the importance of turning tests around within the targets set. “The clock is ticking from the minute that swab is taken. So if your lab is not able to even unpack them for 24 hours after being taken you are already struggling to do anything meaningful. You have got to have that result back within 48 hours at the latest and that is because the only way that we can break the transmission of this virus is to get the contacts of that positive person quarantined.”
Randox processes tens of thousands of kits a week from care homes and individuals testing themselves at home, which are posted back to its laboratories in County Antrim. Randox says they 'do not currently send sample packs for Covid-19'. Concerns were raised in July when spot checks revealed sme kits supplied by a Chinese manufacturer and sent out by Randox weren’t safe. Up to 750,000 of these kits for care homes had to be recalled over the summer.
Randox has hired a well-paid and well-connected consultant to advise it - the Conservative MP and former minister Owen Paterson - who is paid £100,000 a year for his services.
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