Coronavirus tests could be flown into Dundee from other parts of the UK in a bid to clear a nationwide results backlog under proposals put forward by the city’s council leader.
John Alexander said it was “counter-intuitive and a little bit ridiculous” for ministers to wait weeks for the UK’s testing logjam to clear when scientific services across the country could offer up capacity almost immediately.
The UK Government’s Lighthouse Lab network has come under increasing pressure following the return of full-time education in England, and Scotland’s first minister said “too many” tests across the country are not being processed quickly enough.
Nicola Sturgeon said she has “very serious concerns” that problems with the network are “starting to impact on the timeous reporting of Scottish results” after an unexpectedly low number of positive results were recorded overnight into Monday.
Mr Alexander proposed drafting in experts at Tayside Scientific Services, which is part of Dundee City Council, to help take on some of the workload.
The organisation currently provides testing for animal food stuffs and monitors the quality and safety of food and drinking water but Mr Alexander suggested additional resources could be made available to expand its work if necessary.
He acknowledged Tayside Scientific Services would be unable to clear the backlog on its own but said tests should be flown into Tayside and other parts of Scotland from elsewhere in the UK if it helps ease pressure on services more quickly.
“I don’t think that we should be limited in any way, shape or form,” Mr Alexander said. “We shouldn’t limit it to geography.
“If there is a requirement for additional processing, I don’t think it should matter where those tests come from. The only essential thing is getting them processed as quickly as possible.
“It doesn’t matter if they are being flown up from the north of England or Shetland or wherever it is, the important thing is that we process them as quickly as we possibly can. We have a resource here and we’re willing to make it available.”
Ms Sturgeon confirmed on Monday that her government had “managed to resist a move” by UK ministers to limit access to testing slots in Scotland.
Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, the SNP leader said officials are looking to explore options to increase capacity and will follow-up with Mr Alexander to see whether his proposal would be possible.
However, she warned the UK-wide testing system is complex and it is not as simple as “just diverting some of those tests to another company or an NHS lab”.
“That’s not to say we are not exploring all the ways of doing that, to relieve pressure and build overall capacity, but I don’t want to give the impression that it’s as simple as just flicking a switch,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“It’s more complex than that but we are exploring all of these options at the moment.”
The Lighthouse Lab network is responsible for testing care home staff but Ms Sturgeon said consideration is being given to moving the work over to the NHS amid suggestions some workers have been waiting between five and seven days for results.
Ms Sturgeon spoke to UK health secretary Matt Hancock and Dido Harding, the head of the UK testing system, on Monday night “to seek assurances that Scotland will continue to get fair access to the UK-wide laboratory capacity”.
She said: “I have a concern about the capacity constraints right now with the UK-wide system and for Scotland in recent days.
“This has not been an issue of access to testing slots at regional testing centres or mobile testing units but instead it has been one of access to sufficient Lighthouse Laboratory processing, and it is this that has led to a backlog in the system and longer turnaround times for tests than we we want to be the case.
“As this is a UK-wide system we are not able to resolve this on our own and the issues are impacted by demand elsewhere in the UK.”
Her comments came as she announced a total of 267 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Scotland in the past 24 hours.
She also announced the death of another patient who first tested positive for Covid-19 within the past 28 days – taking the total under this measurement to 2,500.
The new positive cases represent 3.6% of newly tested individuals, up from 2.7% on Monday. Of the new cases, 101 are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 59 are in Lanarkshire, 53 in Lothian and 12 in Ayrshire and Arran.
Ms Sturgeon said the testing backlog means this total will likely include more results from over the past few days than normal.