The voided tests were part of a batch of 67,000 that had to be sent over to a university in the U.S. after the privately run Randox laboratory in Northern Ireland experienced “operational issues.”
The U.K. government had previously admitted to sending 50,000 tests across the Atlantic. A report by the Telegraph has revealed that this figure is 17,000 short of the true number and that 29,500 were later returned as void -- a move that could likely cost British taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds. (Related: UK coronavirus deaths surpass 50,000, according to official figures.)
According to the report, the swabs were returned to the U.K. in two large bags. One of the bags was listed as containing a “much higher than expected void rate.”
The report says that this was due to different equipment standards being applied in the U.S. compared to the United Kingdom.
“We worked hard to get complete tests for people under difficult circumstances. In many cases that worked and we are grateful to the team for their efforts,” stated the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
“But in some cases it didn’t, and the correct judgment was made to void the tests. Everyone affected was offered a new test immediately and we worked quickly to restore full capacity in the UK.”
Last month, a spokesman for the DHSC stated that the laboratory’s operational difficulties were due to a technical glitch, which slowed down the processing of the tests, resulting in a backlog.
“When problems arise, we have contingencies in place, which include creating extra temporary capacity for our labs or sending swabs abroad to partner labs for completion,” the DHSC said. “Of course, our partner labs must match our high standards.”
The DHSC explained that the expansion of the U.K.’s coronavirus testing network involved the setting up of an entirely new laboratory networked called “Lighthouse” to process test swabs. Despite this, the test swabs from the Randox lab were still sent to the U.S., a move that has drawn criticism.
University of Leeds molecular virologist Nicola Stonehouse, who has staff and students working in the Lighthouse laboratories, questioned the decision to ship testing samples to the U.S. rather than to alternative labs in Britain.
“What I don’t understand is if there were problems at one Lighthouse lab, why they didn’t send samples to another Lighthouse lab, or to some of the NHS labs,” she said in an interview with The Guardian.
“The individual Lighthouse labs, to my understanding, do not seem to be in contact and working as a unit: They seem to be working as separate, different labs and that doesn’t seem to me to be a very logical thing to do,” she added.
Others had criticized the government’s decision to ease the country’s lockdown even before its “test-and-trace” system was running optimally.
“What surprises me, I guess, is that we are moving ahead so quickly with easing lockdown before the system is at full speed,” said Lisa McNally, public health director at Sandwell council in the West Midlands, in an interview with BBC Radio 4. “We need to allow time to assess how things are going, get this system up to speed.
In response to criticism, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that his government would work to speed up coronavirus testing in the country. The prime minister committed to getting “all tests turned around in 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that.”
Johnson made the promise in the House of Commons Wednesday. This was after former health secretary Jeremy Hunt made a statement in which he said that the quick delivery of test results would be “absolutely essential” to the success of the government’s “test-and-trace” system.
Learn more about the coronavirus at Pandemic.news.