Patients’ access to vital NHS tests delayed by warehouse failure

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Key NHS tests for conditions from cancer to coronavirus are under threat, after a supply chain failure at a major diagnostics company.

Swiss pharmaceutical firm Roche said problems with a move to a new warehouse had led to a “very significant” drop in its processing capacity.

A spokesman said Covid-19 tests would be prioritised, but it could take two weeks to fix the issue.

But the backlog could affect tests including for cancer and heart disease.

One NHS trust has already advised its GPs to stop all non-urgent blood tests.

In a statement, Roche said: “We deeply regret that there has been a delay in the dispatch of some products.

“We are prioritising the dispatch of Covid-19 PCR [diagnostic] and antibody tests and doing everything we can to ensure there is no impact on the supply of these to the NHS.”

It did not comment on the impact on other specific tests including for kidney, liver and thyroid function, sepsis and infection.

The company is one of the main suppliers of diagnostic testing equipment and materials in the UK.

The affected warehouse in Newhaven, East Sussex, is Roche’s only distribution centre in the UK and covers the whole country.

Tests rationed

Dr Tom Lewis, lead clinician for pathology at North Devon District Hospital, said his hospital’s trust had sent out communications that all non-urgent blood tests in the community should be stopped.

Without rationing these non-urgent tests, he said, they would run out of swabs in “three to four days”.

Even with rationing, essential equipment could run short by next week, he said.

President of the Institute of Biomedical Science Allan Wilson said if the problem continued for “days it probably will have minimal impact, but if it’s weeks then yes it could have a considerable impact on our ability to deliver tests,” across a whole range of conditions in the UK.

Roche said it could take more than a fortnight to resolve the problem.

Dr Lewis said perhaps most concerning was the shortage of electrolyte tests supplied by Roche, since these were “the key test” for critically ill patients, as well as being extremely commonly used by GPs to check people’s medications were safe.

One virologist in the Midlands tweeted that her service had not received Hepatitis C testing kits, and was now running short.

Materials used in cancer diagnostics could also be affected.

In a letter sent to NHS trusts, seen by the BBC, Roche said: “In September we moved from our old warehouse to a new automated warehouse capable of much higher volumes.

“However, during the transition we encountered some unforeseen issues and a very significant drop in our processing capacity. Since then we have worked around the clock to prioritise and manage orders as well as increase this capacity”.

The letter went on to advise local NHS services to “activate [their] local contingency plans” and “look to prioritise essential services only”.

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