Sturgeon defends blocking move to ease UK testing backlog despite problems causing English turmoil 

The First Minister said she was "preoccupied" with ensuring Scotland gets its "fair share" of testing capacity

Nicola Sturgeon revealed on Monday that Jeane Freeman, her health secretary, had resisted an attempt to reduce testing capacity
Nicola Sturgeon revealed on Monday that Jeane Freeman, her health secretary, had resisted an attempt to reduce testing capacity Credit:  Fraser Bremner/PA

Nicola Sturgeon has defended her rejection of moves to lift the pressure on the UK's overstretched Covid-19 laboratories despite a major backlog of tests leading to NHS staff in England being unable to go to work.

Matt Hancock appealed to the devolved nations to agree to cutting back testing slots at Mobile Testing Units on Friday, in a move designed to help bring a problem in processing around 185,000 delayed samples at Britain's network of laboratories under control.

It is understood that the Health Secretary had proposed cutting capacity at the UK-run units from 300 tests per day to 60, in an effort to relieve the burden on laboratories and to prevent the backlog from spiralling further.

However, the plan was resisted by Jeane Freeman, Mr Hancock’s SNP counterpart, as well as health ministers in Cardiff and Belfast.

Their block means that while capacity in the mobile units has been scaled back in England, where demand is currently highest due to a surge in demand linked to the start of the new school year, they are operating at full capacity elsewhere. 

Ms Sturgeon said on Tuesday that there is currently “not by and large” an issue with getting access to tests in Scotland. Meanwhile, at times on Monday, testing slots across swathes of north west England effectively ran out, with no walk-in, drive-through or home tests available.

The First Minister insisted issues in the Lighthouse Lab network, which is run by the Westminster Government on a UK basis and includes a major facility in Glasgow, should be addressed by solving a lack of capacity there rather than cutting back on testing slots.

“At the weekend we didn’t think it was appropriate to respond to a restraint in lab capacity, that wasn’t really being caused by Scottish demand, by trying to peg back Scottish demand,” Ms Sturgeon said, at her daily coronavirus briefing.

She revealed she had put forward other suggestions for helping to deal with the backlog, with the Scottish Government to examine processing regular care home tests in Scottish NHS-run labs rather than the UK facilities.

She said that she had no objection to “flexing of demand” in the system across the UK, which would see areas with a particular problem with an outbreak or testing prioritised, but admitted one of her “real preoccupations” was that Scotland would continue to get its “fair share” of testing capacity.

She said that when Scottish schools went back in mid-August demand also increased north of the border, but that less demand elsewhere meant “that wasn’t necessarily squeezing other parts of the UK out.”

Matt Hancock made the suggestion on Friday Credit: PA/House of Commons

She added: “I have no objection at all to that flexing of demand. What I don’t want to have though is a situation where that squeezes, or talking hypothetically at the moment, would squeeze Scotland’s capacity so much that we started to have a backlog in our testing. We need to manage this equitably and deal with demand as far as possible.”

Ms Sturgeon said the speed at which samples were being processed for Scottish tests was “not as I would want them to be for everybody”. There have been claims from the care home sector that staff are waiting between five and seven days for results of routine tests, raising fears that delays risk a new wave of infections.

There are around 20 Mobile Testing Units in Scotland, which are operated by the UK Armed Forces, compared to 19 in Wales and eight in Northern Ireland. Collectively the units operating in the devolved nations have a daily capacity of around 15,000 tests, a figure that would have been cut to less than 3,000 had ministers agreed to Mr Hancock’s suggestion.

There is frustration within parts of Whitehall that much of the Scottish public is unaware that the UK Government is responsible for a large proportion of testing capacity. 

A walk-through testing centre at St Andrews opened this week, and although it was “announced” by the First Minister, it is operated by Deloitte on behalf of the UK Government. The second of 11 of the centres, at Glasgow Caledonian University, will open on Friday.

Mr Hancock told the Commons on Tuesday that will take a "matter of weeks" to resolve the problems around testing in England. 

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents English hospitals, said doctors, nurses and other frontline workers were being forced to stay home, causing staff absences,  because they could not obtain tests for themselves or for ill children. He also warned that operations and appointments were being cancelled, because patients booked in for surgery were unable to access tests. 

A UK Government source said: “We are grateful for the hard work of our partners who are delivering tests and staff at the Glasgow Lighthouse Lab who are working 24/7 to process tests.

“The UK Government is carrying out most of the testing taking place in Scotland. Any suggestion that Scotland might not be getting a ‘fair share’ of tests is completely false.”