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Hospitals across England are having to ration blood tests because of problems affecting one of the NHS’s main suppliers of the chemicals needed to analyse them.
Many hospitals have begun limiting who can have a blood test in response to a serious shortage of reagents which are used in processing them. Those with the most pressing medical need are having their test but non-urgent tests are being delayed.
Urgent talks are underway involving Roche, the firm involved, NHS England and NHS Supply Chain to try to minimise the disruption to the normal running of hospitals and resolve the issue. There were fears that the problem with the Swiss pharmaceutical company’s new warehouse could take two or three weeks to fix, but hopes are rising that that may now happen within days.
“We know that the Roche supply chain issues have led to a shortage of reagents needed to process tests in NHS laboratories. This is now impacting on a number of trusts’ ability to offer routine blood tests and they are having to prioritise which tests are carried out and processed,” said Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals
“Trusts have put in place plans to ensure that they preserve their stocks and focus on the most urgent tests being analysed.” In some cases trusts with spare supplies of reagents are lending them to neighbouring hospitals under emergency “mutual aid” plans.
The shortage meant, for example, that on Wednesday West Suffolk hospital trust had to turn away many of those who had come for a blood test, with some told to go and see their GP instead. Only those deemed medically pressing, including referrals from consultants, went ahead.
In a statement Dr Nick Jenkins, the trust’s medical director, said: “We have an urgent situation which is making it difficult to complete some blood tests. This is caused by our supplier, Roche, being unable to deliver some chemicals needed for this process. This is a national problem.
“We are prioritising clinically urgent tests. This means that if you are having a regular blood test, it may be delayed. We are very sorry about this.”
Roche said the situation was “exceptionally challenging” but pledged that its problems would not affect the analysis of tests for Covid-19. Geoff Twist, the general manager of Roche Diagnostics UK and Ireland, said: “The current issue with the dispatch of products in the UK has not and will not affect our commitment to supply Covid-19 tests. We are confident that the plans we have put in place will deliver significant improvements by the weekend to the supply of the tests affected by these logistical issues. We will be well on the way to resolution by the end of next week.”
Problems have arisen because Roche, the major provider of swabs and reagents to the Lighthouse labs, 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
… 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.”
Source: The Guardian
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