With spiralling costs and issues around test processing, there are questions over the ability of the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory – once hailed as key to Britain’s fight against Covid-19 – to cope with the nation’s testing needs, writes Science Correspondent
It was hailed as a cutting-edge laboratory that would play a key role in response to Covid-19 and future epidemics, carrying out 300,000 tests a day.
Announcing the project in November 2020, then-health secretary Matt Hancock said the project “confirms the UK as a world leader in diagnostics”.
But less than 18 months later, the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory – named in honour of the renowned British scientist – has been plagued by failure while costing almost twice as much as its initial £588m budget, The Independent understands.
Insiders say construction delays also played a role, while attempts to avoid certifying equipment to speed up the process were stopped at the 11th hour, contributing to “massive pushbacks”. The UKHSA has said these claims are untrue.
Insiders believe these delays could have been avoided had the RFL recruited scientists and clinicians with the relevant experience from the beginning of the project, instead of relying on private consultants whose knowledge of working in the NHS was “almost non-existent”.
According to emails seen by The Independent, 31 lab support technicians were informed last summer – days before they were due to start work – that they would be paid to stay at home indefinitely due to delays, at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer. A further 700 staff were on retainer last summer but had yet to begin work.
Staff “are all on short-term contracts,” said one senior scientist overseeing the UK’s Lighthouse Lab network. “That creates problems in running labs because if you’re on a short-term contract, and the longer-term job comes up, you’re naturally going to move on.”
Its total budget was set at £588m, according to internal figures from June 2021. But by May that year, £500m had already been spent with costs “spiralling”, the former senior scientist said.
By November, the site was hundreds of millions of pounds over budget, according to another person familiar with the project’s finances. By February, estimates put the project’s cost at £1.1bn, according to a Treasury source, who said costs were now out of hand. The UKHSA has said it does not recognise these numbers.
In reality, government officials do not have a clear picture of how much has been spent on the project, according to the Treasury insider and a consultant involved in reviewing the lab’s future.
Prior to the opening of the site, when it became apparent that the RFL would not be built to its original intended size, procurement teams were pressured to break contracts with suppliers and “write off orders” for equipment worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, insiders say.
“We were told under no uncertain terms to never provide things like long-term equipment delivery schedules because that could be considered a promise to the supplier to honour the original arrangement in a court of law,” said the former senior scientist, who helped oversee procurement for the lab.
The Independent has been told that attempts were made by the Treasury to “pull the plug” on the project due to the spiralling costs, but was persuaded against it. The site is now “under review” by HMT officials. The Treasury declined to comment.
Professor Colin Fink, a medical director at the private diagnostics firm Microbiology, said: “The whole thing was too late, really. We could have done it for a tenth of the price … They didn’t want us involved at all.”
By October last year, the lab had processed its millionth Covid test. Under the government’s plans, it had been hoped the RFL would be working through 100,000 samples a day – revised down from 300,000. Instead, the lab was typically processing just 11,500, analysis suggests.