An “appalling” breakdown in communication between Public Health England and the government’s animal health agency may have reduced the UK’s coronavirus testing capacity by tens of thousands per week, according to internal documents and two scientists who work for the agency.
As the government faces mounting scrutiny over its lack of testing for COVID-19, employees at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) told BuzzFeed News that they had been in discussions with Public Health England (PHE) about supporting coronavirus testing efforts for more than two months — but that PHE was still failing to use their equipment and expertise.
Evidence seen by BuzzFeed News shows that PHE sent APHA — the government agency that tests diseases among animals — conflicting information and requests about recruiting and training scientists, and using lab capacity and analytical equipment, suggesting shortcomings in planning and strategy that led to unnecessary delays.
In one internal email, seen by BuzzFeed News, APHA staff were told that increasing the country's coronavirus testing capacity was "work of the highest priority and importance for the UK".
But the agency's scientists were only informed of training requirements in the last few days — eight weeks after PHE first contacted the agency about recruiting volunteers from among its staff to work on coronavirus testing.
One employee at APHA said the agency had the “capacity to perform 40,000 tests a week for human coronavirus samples”. They described the government’s failure to use APHA to conduct testing as “a scandal”.
Another APHA scientist told BuzzFeed News: “We’re not even getting a consistent message about what they want us to do,” adding that the miscommunication with PHE was “appalling”.
Emails seen by BuzzFeed News show that PHE first contacted APHA at the end of January, requesting volunteers to help with a possible escalation in the coronavirus outbreak. The request for additional support followed the template used during the Ebola crisis in 2014.
But the APHA scientists told BuzzFeed News that, over the following two months, PHE failed to follow up on its request and then changed its mind about what it wanted help with, meaning that several weeks that could have been used to increase testing capacity and train volunteers were wasted.
On March 20, APHA staff were informed that PHE needed help setting up testing capacity at an APHA laboratory in Weybridge.
But four days later, PHE revised its request again, making a new call for volunteers at PHE’s own labs. APHA staff were told that “technical difficulties” with the Weybridge lab meant it could take weeks to set up.
The emails don't indicate what those technical difficulties were nor do they say whether they were on PHE's of APHA's side.
It was only on Monday, March 30, that the volunteers were informed that they would be contacted for training, with a view to being ready to work in the PHE and NHS labs by mid-April.
APHA would also “loan critical analytical equipment” to help increase testing numbers to "100,000 PCR tests a day in some new testing facilities which are being set up," staff were told. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are standard practice in labs. PCR samples can come from several different sites in the patient, such as a swab taken from inside the nose.
“Before things really kicked off there was an initial ‘who has got certain skills / who has something to offer?’ should things escalate," one of the scientists said. “So there was a preemptive request but that hasn't been acted on at all.”
APHA volunteers received “no follow-up on that at all” between the end of January and the end of March, the scientist confirmed.
According to the other APHA scientist, PHE began in January “initially asking for help with testing, then reversing this and asking to borrow testing equipment, and now indicating that they will likely need help again”.
“I would describe this as a communications disaster,” they said. “It appears they still do not know what they are doing with respect to testing capacity.”
APHA is an executive agency of the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Both PHE and DEFRA were sent a detailed set of questions ahead of publication.
A PHE spokesperson said: "There have been various discussions at all levels of government in the course of the development of the strategic response to the epidemic."
The spokesperson added: "Scientists from across government have been redeployed to help increase testing capacity for Public Health England and NHS England laboratory testing of hospital patients."
An APHA spokesperson said: “We are working very closely with PHE to support the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, including offering scientists and further equipment to assist with testing for the virus.”
As of Monday, 152,979 people had been tested for the coronavirus in the UK.