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St Elizabeth's chief executive Adam Sampson on the challenges and frustrations around coronavirus testing faced by the Perry Green centre ahead of second pandemic wave

St Elizabeth's chief executive Adam Sampson writes for the Indie about the challenges and frustrations around coronavirus testing as the Perry Green centre, which provides positive living and learning for people with epilepsy and other complex needs, prepares for the second wave of the pandemic...

At various points in my career, I have found myself running charities which do not just deliver services but actively campaign for their beneficiaries.

Sometimes that balance is uncomfortable. As Shelter CEO, I spent more time with Government officials and politicians than I ever did with actual homeless people.

St Elizabeth's chief executive Adam Sampson (42411782)
St Elizabeth's chief executive Adam Sampson (42411782)

But charities don't just deal with individuals in need. They also try to find ways of stopping that need arising in the first place.

St Elizabeth's is, rightly, only focused on meeting immediate need, leaving the campaigning to others. But with infection rates increasing sharply and Covid-19 threatening the very lives of the vulnerable people in our care, we have to do everything we can to ensure that we can look after them in the best way possible.

And so it was that I found myself once again facing the Channel 4 News cameras a fortnight ago. Not because St Elizabeth's has suddenly become a campaigning organisation. But because we have a very deep-rooted problem: access to testing.

Now I don't want to complain too much. In many ways, we have been blessed. We managed to get hold of PPE when others could not. Infection rates have remained amazingly low. The Herts local authority have been very supportive. And, above all, our staff stayed brave and determined and have stood with us throughout.

But, as everybody knows, the key to keeping the virus under control, both in the community outside and in our community here, is having a proper test and trace system. So when we began to get access to testing back in June, we were delighted. From that point on, we knew we could identify and respond immediately to any outbreaks among our staff or residents.

When the Government promised in July that we would be in a position to test all our staff weekly and our residents monthly, we rejoiced. We laid in our stock of 700 tests (for 180 residents and 600 staff) and waited to be told to start.

And waited. The August deadline for the policy to start came and went. We rang, weekly, daily, hourly to enquire, but no one knew what was happening.

Covid-19 testing at St Elizabeth's (42411778)
Covid-19 testing at St Elizabeth's (42411778)

By the end of the month, when we had not tested for six weeks, we became worried. UK infection rates were up and access to testing in the community for our staff was beginning to get scarce. The schools were going back and the first sniffles of flu were starting to appear. We needed to act.

So we began testing again, using only 50 tests a week so we did not exhaust our stock. And then, in the third week, we found a positive test – our first for four months. Not a problem, fortunately: neither he nor anyone he has had contact with has had symptoms, and a later second test has now come back negative. But we knew that there could be a problem so were able to take immediate action to prevent any possible transmission. Proof, if proof is needed, that testing is vital.

So, as I write, we are down to our last 500 tests. Unlike care homes dealing exclusively with elderly residents, who are getting access to kits, we cannot do the regular, whole-site testing we want to do. But we can do some testing at least and so long as we do not get a proper outbreak here, we can last this way for a month, perhaps less. However, no one can tell us when – or if – we will get any more test kits.

St Elizabeth's (42412674)
St Elizabeth's (42412674)

That is why I was in front of the TV cameras two weeks ago and why I was quoted this week in the Mail on Sunday. We are a care organisation, not a campaigning one. But the facts are clear. The second wave is coming and everyone is preparing to lock down again.

We are ready for that – prepared and determined. But these will be testing times. And to face them, we need access to testing.

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