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‘Profit, profit, profit’—how Tony Blair helped destroy our capacity to test for coronavirus

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Issue 2697
A lab testing for coronavirus
A lab testing for coronavirus (Pic: Flickr/Governor Tom Wolf)

Why has Britain tested so few people for coronavirus?

The answer may lie in the breakup of hospital pathology departments under plans developed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Labour governments.

They brought in private healthcare boss Lord Carter of Coles to improve the “cost effectiveness” of hospital labs across Britain – and reform the workforce.

In his 2008 report Carter recommended ending the practice of major hospitals having laboratories of such a size that they could conduct most tests themselves. He saw this as wasteful and inefficient.

Instead a new “hub and spoke” system was brought in. Hubs would serve groups of hospitals, while local labs were scaled down. Carter claimed this would result in huge savings. The bosses of the “NHS Improvement” body were thrilled, and demanded quick implementation.

As the changes came in private health providers started muscling in – with predictable results.

Staff numbers were slashed and quality suffered. The need to be ready to cope with any sudden upswing in the number of tests was lost in the drive to make profit.

The most scandalous case involved a Serco subsidiary called Viapath. It was contracted to run tests for Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in south London.

Internal NHS clinician emails said the firm had an “inherent inability to understand that you cannot cut corners and put cost saving above quality”.


And in 2014 Viapath was found to have overcharged the NHS by millions of pounds. The exact scale of the over-charging is not known because a full audit has never been conducted.

A second scandal emerged in 2017 involving Pathology First laboratories, which services Southend’s NHS trust. Public Health England found its “working practices, particularly within the laboratory, compromise service quality and potentially patient safety”.

The result? Some 4,668 cervical smear tests needed retesting and 31 women were subsequently told they had been incorrectly given the all clear. Their tests had shown symptoms related to cancer.

Now the system can’t cope with the daily demand for coronavirus tests.

Even health workers regularly exposed to patients infected with Covid-19 cannot get tested. They face the agonising choice of self-isolating if they get symptoms or continuing to treat patients while knowing they could be making their condition worse.

The head of the World Health Organisation last week said, “Test, test, test,” was the number one priority to fight the spread of the virus. In the Italian town of Vo, the location of the country’s first coronavirus death, testing and resetting of all 3,300 inhabitants has halted new infections in it. 

Unfortunately in Britain the mantra our leaders have lived by is, “Profit, profit, profit.”

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