The independent London newspaper

Safety ‘breach’ at virus test lab

Firm fined over conditions for couriers

09 October, 2020 — By Tom Foot

THE private company running a flagship coronavirus testing laboratory in Euston has failed to implement pandemic health and safety measures, with an alert that it could put its own staff at risk of contamination.

The Doctors Laboratory (TDL), which transports and analyses pathology samples for the Royal Free and University College Hospital, committed a “material breach” of regulations and has been fined, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

HSE inspector Angela Cooper wrote to TDL warning conditions were “not suitable or sufficient” for couriers who bike patient samples to the 11-storey Halo super-lab in Mabledon Place.

Trade union chiefs have been raising health and safety concerns for several months.

Alex Marshall, a former TDL courier who lost his job in March, said the report was “extremely concerning”, adding: “I am relieved that these issues are finally being brought to light.”

The Independent Workers of Great Britain union, which represents couriers who take patient samples to the Halo lab, said workers who had raised health and safety concerns about the site back in March were made redundant “in a clear act of whistleblower victimisation”.

The company has denied these claims but has this week been forced to respond to a series of HSE recommendations.

Ms Cooper’s letter said only cleaning containers used by couriers once a week was inadequate and that she would “expect the containers to be disinfected on a daily basis, not weekly due to the nature of the specimens”.  The letter added: “The risk is that couriers could contaminate themselves and/or surfaces.”

Covid-19 protection measures at the Halo building were only implemented “around two months after the UK chief medical officer raised the risk from coronavirus to the UK from moderate to high and the government advised upon self-isolation measures”, it added.

And there were also concerns over guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE) and that staff “cannot maintain two metres’ distancing in the courier parking bays and rest area”.

The HSE letter said Covid-19 assessments had been made from the point of view of managers and staff “working behind the hatch, and not the side of the hatch that couriers access”. TDL is one of a number of government contractors to be criticised for the national virus testing set-up. It is also part of a joint venture company set up by the Royal Free and UCLH called Health Services Laboratories.

The chairman of HSL, Lord Carter of Coles, headed up a major spending review on behalf of the government which led to NHS hospitals outsourcing work to privately run laboratories.

TDL’s Halo building now has more than 1,000 staff working on hospital samples from across London. They are taken there by a team of couriers.

In a statement, TDL said: “At the height of the pandemic, new Covid-related guidance was issued on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis. “Despite superhuman efforts by our safety team to implement these at speed, not every detail could be captured in real-time. Where points for improvement to our safety systems were highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive, they were fully accepted and implemented immediately.”


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