Covid outbreak fears with ‘outrageous’ plan for Government to stop paying for lunches, drinks and snacks for testers – meaning they’ll have to mingle with the public in shops
- EXCLUSIVE: Department of Health funds food and drink for Covid testers
- But it plans to cut this financing by May 17 as cases continue to fall across the UK
- Experts warned this un-necessarily risked spreading the virus in the community
- They added it hinted complacency over the virus was creeping into Government
Covid testers will be forced to mingle with the public to get their lunch under plans being devised by ministers, MailOnline can reveal.
The Department of Health currently pays for sandwiches, drinks and snacks for all swabbers to ensure they remain on the testing site for their 12-hour shift.
But officials have told Sodexo — which manages 150 testing sites — that the funding will be cut on May 17, the same day No10 takes its next step back to freedom.
In a letter sent to staff employed by the outsourcing firm and seen by MailOnline, Sodexo claims to have asked the Department of Health to push back the move.
Experts warned it created an ‘unnecessary’ risk that could fuel future outbreaks, and said pressing ahead with the plan would be ‘absolutely outrageous’.
There have been no reports of Covid cases linked to testing centres to date — but it can be hard to pinpoint the exact location of an outbreak.
Public Health England data shows several Covid clusters have been traced back to supermarkets, although it can’t prove this is where someone was infected.
Health chiefs are thought to spend around £700,000 a week on catering supplies from the Soho Sandwich Company, Brakes and others for the country’s more than 500 testing sites.
Sodexo circulated this letter to its staff at Covid testing sites. Sources say the plan is to stop funding food and drink supplies for the more than 500 Covid testing sites in the country
Covid testers are currently supplied with food and drink at a cost of around £700,000 a week, according to estimates. But this funding could be cut in less than two weeks (Pictured: A man passes a Covid test to a Covid tester in Essex, England
MORE PEOPLE IN ENGLAND AND WALES ARE NOW DYING OF FLU THAN COVID
More people are now dying from flu and pneumonia than Covid in England and Wales for the first time since the second wave took off, official figures revealed today.
Office for National Statistics data showed the virus was mentioned on 260 death certificates that occurred in the week ending April 23 — down 30 per cent on the week before.
But Covid was only listed as the underlying cause for 176 of the victims. For comparison, flu and pneumonia was behind 278 deaths in the same seven-day spell but mentioned on 1,203 certificates.
Covid was the leading cause of death during the second wave, claiming more than 1,000 lives a day at the peak of the crisis in January.
Experts said a successful vaccine roll-out forcing down Covid deaths, combined with more mixing leading to a resurgence in pneumonia-causing infections was behind the trend.
The promising figures will inevitably pile more pressure on Boris Johnson to speed-up his ultra-cautious lockdown exit strategy, which will not permit holidays or pubs and restaurants to serve indoors until May 17. Restrictions will remain in place until June 21, at the earliest.
The letter sent to Sodexo staff reads: ‘The Department of Health and Social Care have confirmed that funding for food provisions for workers with the Test Centre network will cease from 17 May 2021.
‘Sodexo have requested that DHSC review their decision and to reconsider the current end date for the funding of staff food provisions.’
They add: ‘The operations team are currently working on revised guidance to enable all workers to leave and re-enter sites while supporting Infection Prevention Controls and reducing the risk of infection.
‘We hope this will assist in alleviating the removal of food provisions and allow workers to obtain food off site.’
Sodexo says online it runs 150 (30 per cent) of testing sites in the UK, and employs a workforce of almost 20,000 to run them – equivalent to four police forces.
But sources said the decision to cut food and drink for testers will affect swabbing sites across the country, including those run by other companies.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School, warned health chiefs were taking an ‘unnecessary risk’ in cutting the funding.
‘I’m sure the risks (of a Covid outbreak) are low because Covid testers are wearing PPE, but this is just an unnecessary risk,’ he told MailOnline.
‘This is one of these things where I worry that somehow there’s bits of complacency creeping in at the moment.
‘But we all know that with this virus you can’t take your eye off the ball. There can easily be a backlash that can compromise the current situation.’
He added that the plans were ‘absolutely outrageous’.
‘One of the most important things we have to do now we are heading into much happier times is to make sure we have an effective testing system that is working well,’ he said.
‘But the idea that we are going to compromise the whole testing regime by asking testers to get their food from supermarkets and the like is just absurd.
‘There’s been bits of evidence that supermarkets have been a source of spreading infection, and we also know that supermarkets haven’t been as stringent in terms of social distancing, face mask wearing and so on as in the past few months.’
Safety precautions are taken on sites to reduce the risk of testers catching Covid, including wearing PPE, face masks and regularly swabbing staff for the virus.
They had previously judged that testers should not leave sites during their shifts.
The change could be because of dwindling cases, meaning they are confident the risk is low. But Health chiefs did not make this move when cases were low last year.
PHE data from November suggests almost 20 per cent of people who had Covid had visited a supermarket in the seven days before they caught the virus. But they insisted this did not prove that the individuals actually caught the virus in supermarkets
There have been no reports of Covid outbreaks linked to testing centres. But there was an outbreak at the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab where swabs are processed last December
Public Health England data has suggested up to 20 per cent of Covid cases may be linked to supermarkets.
But PHE experts insisted their data did not suggest supermarkets were at the centre of Covid transmission, saying it did not prove they were where someone had actually being infected by the virus.
Food supplies provided to a 30-person Sodexo testing site in Brighton included 1,000 packets of crisps, 264 bottles of water and hundreds of chocolate bars.
Fizzy and hot drinks, cakes, biscuits, sandwiches and fruit were also on the list.
The UK’s £22billion Covid Test and Trace system has faced heavy criticism over its enormous price tag, with MPs saying there is no proof contact tracing actually curbed outbreaks of the disease.
But the testing arm is acknowledged to have been widely successful, allowing scientists and ministers to track the spread of the virus across the country.
The Department of Health has splash more than £279.5million on contracts with Deloitte alone to run testing sites, which then outsourced the work to Sodexo, Mitie and G4S among others.
A Covid outbreak affecting four scientific teams, admin and warehouse staff was recorded at the Milton Keynes lighthouse laboratory last December.
The site is central to the UK’s testing system, checking around 70,000 swabs a day for the virus. In one case, 20 people in a 70-member lab team had to isolate.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: ‘NHS Test and Trace is the biggest testing system per head of population of all the major countries in Europe, with more than 1,105 test sites for people with Covid symptoms in operation across the UK, alongside our offer of free, twice weekly rapid testing for everyone in England.
They added: ‘Testing centre staff are permitted to leave test sites so long as they follow the necessary infection prevention and control procedures, including putting on and removing PPE at appropriate points.’
Sodexo said it was for the Department of Health to comment on the case.