Concerns access to PCR Covid testing in Northumberland could be reduced if more cash not made available

Health chiefs in Northumberland have warned they could be forced to scale back Covid testing if they can’t secure more government cash.

By James Harrison
Tuesday, 14th December 2021, 10:10 pm
More restrictions have been introduced to limit spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
More restrictions have been introduced to limit spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The county currently has four sites dedicated to PCR swabs, at Berwick, Ashington, Blyth and Hexham, as well lateral flow devices on offer at a range of locations.

But concerns have been raised over how long the existing regime can be maintained – just as the rise of the Omicron variant makes it more important than ever.

And questions have also been asked about “barriers” to accessing rapid result Lateral Flow Device (LFD) testing.

“We do have a number of challenges and it will be interesting to see whether this now gets picked up, based on the national guidance that’s come out,” said Gill O’Neill, interim deputy director of public health at Northumberland County Council (NCC).

“We have been waiting for a long time now for a national testing strategy and that links with the funding that is offered for us to be able to continue to run these programmes.

“And there is a risk if we don’t receive additional funding, that the PCR capacity may have to be reduced for us and that’s not something that we’re keen to have happen to us with the current situation.”

O’Neill was speaking at the latest meeting of the county council’s Health and Wellbeing Board, held after the veiling of Plan B rules by the Prime Minister, but before Sunday’s address to the nation on the acceleration of the vaccine booster programme.

Northumberland currently has the highest rate of PCR testing in the North East, with about half taking place at one of the four designated Local Testing Sites (LTS).

The Regional Testing Site (RTS) at Newcastle Great Park and postal tests each account for a further fifth each, with the remainder taking place at Mobile Testing Units (MTU), which are regularly stationed at Alnwick, Morpeth and West Hartford, near Bedlington.

O’Neill added extra funding would be needed to ensure testing could remain a “core plank” of the county’s coronavirus prevention plans.

At the same time, concerns are rising about access to LFD testing in Northumberland and beyond.

Pharmacies in the county have been handing out up to 3,000 a week, in addition to online orders.

The rise of the Omicron variant and new rules requiring daily testing for close contacts prompted a surge in requests, resulting in the official government website running out.

But even before that, requirements to download a “collect code” before collecting LFDs from pharmacies was believed to be putting some off.

NCC director of public health Liz Morgan said: “Clearly it’s not a local authority policy, but the national policy to require people to get a code before they can collect their lateral flow test is, in effect, putting a barrier in the way.

“We do have roving bands going around the county, dropping LFDs off at community pharmacies [and] community venues – so post offices, shops, that sort of thing.

“Part of our LFD testing strategy is to make sure we target those communities that might find accessing testing quite tricky.”

James Harrison, Local Democracy Reporter