Coronavirus: Major UK testing company broke health and safety laws at height of pandemic

1 October 2020, 20:16 | Updated: 1 October 2020, 22:23

One of the biggest coronavirus testing companies in the UK broke health and safety law multiple times at the height of the pandemic, Sky News can reveal.

The breaches, which related to an inspection in May, included telling couriers that the containers used to transport coronavirus tests should be cleaned at least once a week, when in fact they should have been cleaned at least once a day.

The Doctor's Laboratory, which transported COVID-19 samples from London's Nightingale Hospital during the height of the pandemic, has been ordered to pay a fee by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), whose inspector found a "material breach" of health and safety law.

A 24 August letter from HSE, seen by Sky News, orders The Doctor's Laboratory to change numerous internal processes by 9 September, saying: "It is important that you deal with these matters to protect people's health and safety."

The inspection, which focused on May, when the pandemic was at its height, found that The Doctor's Laboratory:

  • Failed to provide evidence of "suitable and sufficient instructions" about the proper use of masks and gloves
  • Did not complete a risk assessment for two months after the UK's risk level was raised from moderate to high
  • Gave unclear instructions about cleaning transport containers, including who should do the cleaning or how it should be done
  • Told couriers to clean transport containers "as a minimum, at least once per week", rather than daily

The news comes as CCTV footage uncovered by Sky News shows a driver for a different company, courier service eCourier, picking up a box of tests at a care home, putting them in back of his car, then discarding the box, putting the tests and himself at risk.

The breaches raised questions about the role played by gig economy workers in the testing supply chain.

Stephen Timms MP, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, said those "vulnerable" and "insecure" workers needed support from government and HSE.

"We've got to do everything we can to make sure everything is as safe as possible," he said.

"Part of that is the Health and Safety Executive being able to look at any circumstances where couriers and delivery drivers are worried about their safety from Covid.

"That requires the HSE to have an adequate level of resources and I'm not convinced at the moment that they do."

As one of the biggest private laboratories in the UK, The Doctor's Laboratory conducts a large number of coronavirus swab tests for major private and public organisations.

Yet Alex Marshall, a former cycle courier at The Doctor's Laboratory, told Sky News that at the peak of the pandemic he felt concerned about his safety.

"We were heading to drive-throughs, picking up bin bags of Covid, [then] putting them in containers that we weren't cleaning very often."

Asked whether it was normal for laboratories to clean transport containers weekly, Dr Tony Cooke, CEO of Cambridge Clinical Laboratories, said: "Would you clean your hands once a week?

"After you've touched something you clean your hands. After the samples have been in the box and taken out, you clean the box. It is a routine sort of procedure... if they are not using best practice then they are not really looking after their employees."

A spokesperson for The Doctor's Laboratory said that it spoke regularly to the Health and Safety Executive, but that at the height of the pandemic government guidance changed almost constantly.

The spokesperson 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 was captured and the points for improvement to our safety systems highlighted by HSE were fully accepted and implemented immediately."

A Health and Safety Executive spokesperson told Sky News that the letter, dated 24 August 2020, had given The Doctor's Laboratory until 9 September to correct any breaches of health and safety law, adding that it was "normal procedure" that companies were "given an opportunity to put the right processes in place."

The complaint about The Doctor's Laboratory was raised with HSE by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), a union for freelance and gig economy workers. IWGB is involved in a dispute with The Doctor's Laboratory over staff redundancies.

A spokesperson for eCourier, the company whose driver was seen discarding a box used for coronavirus tests, said it safely delivered completed test kits from around 5,000 care homes every day.

"We have clear processes in place to protect both our people and our customers in the transfer of these materials," the spokesperson said.

"We will reinforce the importance of following the correct procedures at all times."