Massive new Covid-19 testing lab in Milton Keynes will play "crucial" part in beating coronavius, Matt Hancock announces tonight

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has today officially - and secretly - launched the biggest diagnostic lab network in British history right here in Milton Keynes

Thursday, 9th April 2020, 10:06 pm
Updated Thursday, 9th April 2020, 10:12 pm

The laboratory, tucked away on a city industrial estate, is the first of a network of three mega ‘Lighthouse Labs’ to be set up across the country.

Together they will dramatically increasing the number of coronavirus tests that can take place each day.

Each lab will have the capacity to test tens of thousands of patient samples each day, prioritising NHS staff to help them return to work.

The lab is on Tilbrook
The lab is on Tilbrook

The MK facility is based at the National Biosample Centre, which is on an industrial area on Tilbrook between Browns Woods and Caldecote.

The Citizen revealed a week ago here that the ordinary-looking warehouse building had been earmarked for a national Covid-19 testing centre.

Ever since, we have been trying to discover whether tests are currently being carried out there. But plans seemed to be veiled in secrecy, with Department of Health officials refusing to comment.

However, tonight the government officially announced its intention for the building, which they say is "already" able to test thousands of patient samples each day.

The lab is quite hidden

The news comes as politicians were facing criticism over the lack of tests available to the general public all over the UK. Until now, the only people testes have been those presenting at hospital, and critics say this does not give a true reflection of the extent of infection.

The biosample centre, based in a warehouse next to radiator company Pitacs Ltd, was opened by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in 2015, at a cost of £24m.

Signage has not been changed, and Mr Hancock quietly visited the building today, before the Cobra meeting, to launch what the government describe as the first Lighthouse Lab.

A government spokesman said: "The site in Milton Keynes is the first of three mega-labs that will be integrated into the new national testing infrastructure, with new sites being set up each day across the country to take patient samples.

Cylinders outside the lab

"This is the first of three Lighthouse Labs to be set up across the country, dramatically increasing the number of coronavirus tests that can take place each day. The labs have taken their name from the PCR testing technology, which uses fluorescent light to detect the virus."

Since rollout began on March 24, there are now 13 drive-through sites for NHS frontline staff and their families in operation across the UK, helping to provide the labs with patient samples.

Two further Lighthouse Labs will be opened in Alderley Park and Glasgow in the next two weeks to add further capacity to test swabs for the virus.

"The testing of NHS staff and their families currently in isolation will continue to be prioritised, allowing those testing negative, or with family members who test negative, to return to work," said the spokesman..

Signage has not changed

"The lab in Milton Keynes is already able to test thousands of patient samples each day, and will work with other Lighthouse Labs to automate the testing process with robotics to increase this to tens of thousands over the coming weeks," he said.

"A new digital platform is currently also under construction to meet the UK’s target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. The platform will automate the country’s collection of patient samples, supported by world-class, cross-sector British logistics experts, supported by military planners."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said tonight: "We have set the challenge of achieving a 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of the month. A stream of new testing and diagnostic facilities are being brought online, and the opening of the first of our new Lighthouse Labs is an historic moment."

Backed by Britain’s world-class scientists and industry partners, the opening of Milton Keynes lab today was a "crucial step" taken in tackling this virus, he said.

National Testing Coordinator Professor John Newton said: "The progress made to increase coronavirus testing across the UK in just a matter of weeks is truly remarkable. I am proud to see the country pulling together in unprecedented times to achieve unprecedented things. The Lighthouse Labs will be the largest network of diagnostic labs in British history."

"New testing sites are a key part of our 5-pillar plan to scale up testing. We will use the new mega-labs to continue our work to prioritise NHS staff and key workers currently in isolation, helping those without the virus safely return to work."

Biffa bins outside

Last week the Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the UK government’s 5-pillar plan to rapidly scale up coronavirus testing across the UK. The new 5-pillar plan outlines the ambitions to:

Pillar 1: Scale up swab testing in PHE labs and NHS hospitals for those with a medical need and the most critical workers to 25,000 a day in England by mid to late April, with the aligned testing strategies of the NHS in the Devolved Administrations benefiting from PHE’s partnership with Roche through a central UK allocation mechanism

Pillar 2: Deliver increased commercial swab testing for critical key workers in the NHS across the UK, before then expanding to key workers in other sectors

Pillar 3: Develop blood testing to help know if people across the UK have the right antibodies and so have high levels of immunity to coronavirus

Pillar 4: Conduct UK-wide surveillance testing to learn more about the spread of the disease and help develop new tests and treatments

Pillar 5: Create a new National Effort for testing, to build a mass-testing capacity for the UK at a completely new scale

So far more than 280,000 coronavirus tests have taken place across the UK.

Professor John Newton of Public Health England has been appointed as National Testing Co-ordinator to bring together government, industry, academia, the NHS and many others, behind this national effort to better understand how the virus is spreading.

The Lighthouse Labs are being actively supported by pharma companies GSK and AstraZeneca, who are providing access to data and resources to further increase their capacity as they scale up at record pace. An extensive supply chain of resources is being established to bring further resources to these facilities as they become operational and scale up.

The new Lighthouse Labs have been constructed through a partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care, Medicines Discovery Catapult, UK Biocentre and the University of Glasgow. Their development is being closely supported by both NHS and Public Health England.

The building, next to radiator company Pitacs Ltd, was opened as the biosample centre by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in 2015, at a cost of £24m.

It is the largest facility in the UK for storing and processing biological samples and has capacity to store more than 20 million samples at temperatures as low as -196C.

Work carried out by its team of experts includes research into to finding treatments and cures for conditions such as dementia and diabetes.