Fears that people trying to get tested for Covid-19 will face further delays have been raised by revelations of shortages of supplies from the diagnostics company Roche because of problems at its warehouse.
Roche, the major provider of swabs and reagents to the Lighthouse labs, said it had experienced a “very significant drop” in its processing capacity due to a problem with its new Sussex distribution centre, which went live in September.
The problems arose during the handover of supplies from its existing warehouse to the new facility.
Labs were reporting shortages of reagents in September, but in response to questions from the Guardian, Roche was adamant at the time that there had been no cut in the supplies coming to the UK from the US.
Instead, it appears the problem has been a logjam at the new warehouse, delaying supplies being shipped to the labs that need them. The shortages are said to include swabs, screening kits and reagents.
In addition to providing these chemicals and parts used in Covid-19 tests, Roche also provides materials for a wide range of procedures including blood and urine tests, as well as diabetic care. Routine screening of blood samples taken at GP practices and in hospitals may have to be rationed until the issues are sorted out.
In a statement, the company said it was doing all it could to keep the crucial Covid testing materials flowing to labs and test centres, but warned that the problems might not be resolved for two to three weeks.
“We are prioritising the dispatch of Covid-19 PCR and antibody tests, and are doing everything we can to ensure there is no impact on the supply of these to the NHS. Roche pharmaceuticals are not affected,” it said.
In a letter seen by the PA Media news agency, the company told customers to activate local contingency plans “and recommend that you look to prioritise essential services only”.
The letter adds: “In September we moved from our old warehouse to a new automated warehouse capable of much higher volumes. However, during the transition we encountered some unforeseen issues and a very significant drop in our processing capacity. Since then we have worked around the clock to prioritise and manage orders as well as increase this capacity.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “Roche has alerted hospitals to an issue with their supply chain, and they will be working urgently to resolve this issue.”
A Roche spokesperson said: “We deeply regret that there has been a delay in the dispatch of some products and apologise to any of our customers who have been impacted.
“As well as extending working hours, we have recruited extra staff and, where they can, our dedicated teams on the ground are working with customers to distribute products and minimise service disruption. We will continue to provide regular updates to our customers and we are doing everything possible to return to routine operations.”
Munira Wilson, the MP for Twickenham and health spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, expressed her concern about the impact of the problem while the healthcare system was under “incredible strain”.
She said: “These reports will leave many people incredibly anxious, and rightly so. This does not only have serious consequences for our ability to test for Covid-19, but others with potentially incredibly serious illnesses will also be unable to get the blood tests or screening they need.”
She added: “Our NHS must be able to treat everyone, whatever their illness, and ministers must do everything in their power to resolve this issue with the supply chain as quickly as possible.
“We cannot allow this virus to get further out of control, as well as further risking the health of thousands of individuals whose diagnosis of serious illness could either be delayed or go undetected.”