NHS hospitals have been banned from launching their own coronavirus testing for staff and patients who have symptoms – despite a nationwide shortage in tests.
Leaked NHS documents, passed to The Independent, show the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has now capped funding for Covid-19 testing in the health service, even though the lack of tests has left hospital doctors, nurses, teachers and other key workers forced to stay at home.
The diktat warned hospitals that, if they did choose to go ahead, the six figure costs would have to come from their own budgets.
The warning was sent just a day after testing tsar Baroness Dido Harding admitted to MPs that demand for coronavirus tests is three to four times the number available.
She claimed the spike in demand as schools and hospitals re-opened was unexpected and meant the 242,000 tests available were not enough.
Despite a pledge from Chancellor Rishi Sunak that the NHS would be given what it needed, hospital bosses have been sent new guidance on funding which makes clear the levels of cash for testing has been capped.
The imposition of a cap means NHS England has been forced to tell hospitals not to spend money on testing unless they get formal approval.
One senior NHS director told The Independent that NHS trusts had the ability to buy Covid-19 test capacity in local laboratories but now faced the risk of not getting the money to pay for it.
“We have access to local testing but are being told we can’t use them. They want to control testing and the money spent. It doesn’t make sense and I know some hospitals that are going to have to ignore this and won’t be reimbursed.”
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “We need to understand the full implications of this change in policy and there may be some merits in it. But public confidence in Test and Trace has already been undermined and anything that introduces further delays for staff and patients will undoubtedly raise more concerns.”
When the pandemic initially hit Britain, hospitals were able to claim back money spent on responding to the virus.
In the guidance sent to trusts, NHS England said: “Testing is now overseen by DHSC’s NHS Test and Trace service, and the NHS will be funded for Covid-19 testing services by government on a capped actuals basis.
“This means that, for a clear set of deliverables, there is a maximum budget, with funding up to that maximum for the actual costs NHS providers incur.”
It warned: “NHS providers who have not been commissioned to deliver the service should not establish testing without formal approval and will not be able to access funding to reimburse costs incurred from establishing testing unapproved by the DHSC NHS Test and Trace service.”
While some NHS pathology labs have been formally commissioned to carry out Covid-19 testing, other hospitals have turned to their own testing to make sure staff and patients are not left waiting too long.
The turnaround time for NHS testing is significantly faster than the centralised Lighthouse Labs, which have seen turnaround performance collapse with just 33 per cent of test results being returned within 24 hours.
The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England were approached for comment.