Whistleblowers who worked at the Lighthouse Laboratory in Milton Keynes alleged that workers received insufficient training before everyone was asked to process tens of thousands of coronavirus test samples every day.
A joint investigation by The independent and the BBC also revealed concerns over a lack of social distancing, poor protective clothing and unsafe handling of samples by staff under pressure to process as many tests as possible as Britain tried to beef up its program screening for coronaviruses.
The UK network of Lighthouse Laboratories, run by private non-profit organizations, was set up within weeks in April to quickly expand daily testing capacity. Initially there were three laboratories in Milton Keynes, Manchester and Glasgow. There are now seven mega-labs in the country that aim to process a combined total of at least 500,000 tests per day by the end of October.
But Dr Julian Harris, an experienced virologist who worked at the Milton Keynes site in July and August, said The independent he had been “appalled” by the lack of training and compliance with safety standards.
He said he believed many of those who had been recruited to work in the labs were unaware of the dangers.
“They were at risk of infection, but they didn’t know because they hadn’t been properly trained,” he said.
Following a complaint from Dr Harris, the Health and Safety Executive twice visited Milton Keynes’ lab and confirmed that it had identified five “significant violations” of health and safety legislation.
The watchdog said these were linked to social distancing, cleaning regimes and safety training. The lab was urged to make improvements to increase cleaning in high contact areas and to ensure that “knowledgeable” staff provide health and safety training.
The British biocenter, which runs the Milton Keynes lab, said it had strict security measures in place and was making improvements.
Some of Dr Harris’ concerns were accepted by officials at the lab, which processes about 35,000 test samples a day, at a meeting in August after raising internal safety concerns. A senior manager told him that due to the departure of university staff and replacement by less experienced workers, the training in place did not seem “strong enough” to him, adding that he felt there was a “problem” fundamental ”with protocols not correctly followed.
In September, Boris Johnson wrote to universities urging them to release 400 staff to help lighthouse labs amid fears that the lack of manpower would affect the ability to process tests. Dr Harris, who began working in laboratories dealing with highly infectious diseases in the 1980s, said he quickly became concerned about what he saw when he started working in the laboratory on July 6.
He described the initial training as “rushed” without any reference to specific issues related to working in a level two biosafety lab such as Milton Keynes. He also said there was a lack of signage, spill kits in case samples were thrown on the ground and staff were unsure what to do when this happened.
“During the initiation, I felt I was surrounded by people who knew nothing about biosecurity or handling infectious pathogens,” he said. And it’s pretty easy and pretty straightforward to train them. They are not and that is what is deplorable.
He added, “I have seen a complete overload of the biosafety cabinets and when you do that the airflow has nowhere to go.
“They actually had racks full of tubes placed directly on the front rack and I’ve seen it a few times. So people did not have any protection. I am convinced that they were at risk of infection, but they did not know that because they had not been properly trained.
The UK biocenter said two staff members were used to operate the safety cabinets, with the second worker witnessing and helping the scientist use the cabinet. He said staff initially had three days of mandatory training.
Another former lab worker said The independent: “I immediately began to question some of the most basic practices employed in laboratories. It was as if we were ready to work on a war footing with enormous enthusiasm for the task, but most of the things we could implement from existing industry and laboratory practices to make things right. more efficient and safer for the work team were not used.
The insider, who asked not to be named, said: “During my shifts I was sitting in front of a biosafety cabinet for hours and every hour opening 320 bags of samples, doing repeated actions. requiring significant force. There was no rotation between tasks, not enough breaks for this type of work, and basic laboratory practices to avoid injury from this repetitive work did not seem to be a consideration.
“We had disposable lab coats for visitors with gloves stuck to the sleeves with brown tape to reach the cabinets, no plastic sleeves like in other facilities.
In a statement, the lab said staff now have access to cloth and disposable lab coats and duct tape is being used as an added safety measure, as staff are asked to wear two pairs of gloves.
Reacting to whistleblower concerns, Professor Deenan Pillay, professor of virology at University College London, said he believed part of the problem had been the government’s “obsession with outsourcing”.
He said: “Laboratories that undertake diagnostic work for dangerous pathogens, which is Covid-19, are dangerous places.
“Lighthouse Labs started out with doctoral students and others from universities who had never done diagnostic tests before. It is not surprising that there are health and safety issues if the training is not appropriate. It concerns me that we as a nation depend on labs that struggle to endow themselves.
“I think the way the government approached this issue has been spending excessive amounts – billions and billions of pounds on contracting out. The focus will be on how the public sector has been undermined rather than used to the best of its ability to deal with a pandemic. ”
The UK biocenter, which runs the Milton Keynes lab, said it was taking action on issues raised by the Health and Safety Executive, but added the regulator had not given notice.
The independent understands that the HSE has written to the lab outlining the actions they expect to take. An HSE spokesperson said: “Following an inspection, HSE identified significant violations of health and safety legislation and notified UK Biocentre Ltd in writing.”
A UK spokesperson for the Biocentre said: “We take the health and safety of all our staff very seriously and actively encourage scientists and other colleagues to suggest improvements and raise any concerns. We are grateful for the support and guidance from HSE as we continue to expand our operations to meet the testing needs of the country. HSE has made a few observations which we are responding to as we continue to expand our testing capacity to fight the coronavirus.
“For the avoidance of doubt, HSE has not issued an improvement notice, but we actively welcome their expertise in ensuring the safety of our laboratory teams who work tirelessly as part of a diagnostic network that operates at a scale that this country has never seen before. We ensure that everyone who works at UK Biocentre has the right skills and receives the necessary training. We assess all employees on an assessment day before providing a full day introduction – which includes health and safety procedures. This is then followed by an additional, laboratory-specific induction. “