By Grainne Cuffe
Key workers showing no symptoms of Covid-19 are set to be tested in Lewisham as part of a rapid testing pilot scheme.
Lewisham Council is preparing to start target testing asymptomatic people in specific groups, such as care home workers or teachers, in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
Along with 67 local authorities, the council is taking part in the second wave of the pilot, which first launched in Liverpool where residents were mass tested.
Lewisham will be doing targeted instead to avoid putting too much pressure on resources.
In a Covid response update to the council’s overview and scrutiny business panel on Tuesday, director of public services Ralph Wilkinson said: “Our approach is looking to target key frontline workers; we’re thinking in schools, care homes, and where we’ve got outbreaks.
“We’re going to be looking to […] find people who’ve got the virus but show no signs of having it […] to identify them and to get them to self-isolate so they don’t pass it on.”
The council has yet to order test kits from the Government as it still “doing very careful planning” around who will be targeted, but should make an order “hopefully in the coming weeks”.
The pilot uses lateral flow tests, which give a result much quicker than the PCR test, which is used if someone has symptoms.
The newer tests do not require lab processing and return very few false positive – 99.68 per cent.
But just under 25 per cent of people who do not have Covid-19 receive false negatives – positive results even though they don’t have the virus, an issue that was raised by committee members.
Several members also raised concerns that targeted testing could be a waste of resources at a time when they are stretched.
Chair of the children and young people select committee, Councillor Luke Sorba, suggested postponing the trial.
He quoted several public health experts in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), who raised concerns about the use of “unvalidated technologies”, a lack of focus on improving the test and trace system, and that false positives will make people isolate when they don’t have to affecting “social and economic wellbeing”.
“Anthony Costello, former director of maternal and child health of WHO, called this waste and corruption on a cosmic scale because of the amount of money being paid into the private sector,” Cllr Sorba said.
“I’m a lay person, but there is sufficient doubt placed in my mind from the experts who are guiding me to request that you pause and revisit your decision,” he added, “before you commit very precious Lewisham resources to a project that may not be the most efficient use of the staff and resources”.
Mr Wilkinson said it is a “developing” situation and that the council isn’t doing the trial on its own.
He said: “As a council we’re really keen to take part in anything we think will help to reduce the spread of the virus.
“We do think there is something to using these rapid tests […]”
He added that members were “right to be concerned because we don’t have an unlimited supply of resource”.
“The lessons learned from Liverpool in the way that they approached it – they were trying to test their whole population over a short period of time – was that you need a huge amount of resource, and actually they didn’t pick up a huge number of cases as a result of that.
“That’s why in [this roll-out] we’re refining that and taking the ability to use these tests and use them in a much more focussed, targeted way,” he said.
Lewisham’s director of public health, Dr Catherine Mbema, said public health colleagues “work from evidence base”.
“We wouldn’t be trying to implement any initiatives that didn’t have some evidence base,” she said, adding that there was enough from the first trial to do a pilot using targeted testing.
“We’ll be learning – in the event that there’s a problem with feasibility, there’s a problem with accuracy, of course we’ll take that learning and may choose to go in a different direction,” Dr Mbema said.
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