The Wokingham Paper

Wokingham Borough Council to buy own stock of Covid-19 tests to protect key workers

Cllr Lindsay Ferris says she has supported the Council on purchasing Covid tests, but has concerns about debt in WBC

WOKINGHAM BOROUGH COUNCIL is to spend up to £120,000 to purchase Covid-19 testing kits for key workers. 

Its Executive committee approved the decision at a virtual meeting held on Thursday, September 24. The decision was made against a backdrop of residents struggling to book Test and Trace tests through the government website. 

The tests will be held for emergency provision and would be used only if needed. The money covers the swabs, lab analysis and notifying Public Health England of the results. 

The plan comes as the number of coronavirus cases across the country continues to rise. It follows a similar process the council undertook in April when there were shortages of PPE. 

Ahead of the meeting, Cllr Charles Margetts, the executive member for health, wellbeing and adult services, said: “We could sit around and wait for the national system to be sorted out – but I’d rather we took action to protect our people. 

“All through this crisis we have acted quickly to keep people as safe as possible and, once again, we are having to act at a local level.”

Of the money allocated, part would go towards the initial purchase with the remainder set aside if more tests were needed to be purchased. 

Cllr Margetts said: “We would not be attempting to make up all the shortfalls in the national system – that would be impossible. But these testing kits would help us protect vital services such as schools and care work for the community. It could also help us react quickly to any outbreaks should we need to.”

Before councillors voted on the purchase there were questions from members of the public and opposition politicians. 

Resident Wesley Budd was first, who wanted to know if the council would be able to claim the cost of Covid-19 tests back from the Government. 

He said that “I believe that one figure that has been mooted is that each test could cost around £100”.

Cllr Margetts said: “An important point to make here is that the price includes the whole testing service and not just the test kit. So it includes the kit, the courier to the lab, the lab processing and public health having access to the test results.”

He added that the council was seeking to secure a back-up supply “should we have a significant situation, such as an outbreak, where we experience a problem with the government testing routes”. 

And the council would try and broke funding from the government for this. 

“It is imperative we target our declining resources to where they are most needed, which we believe to be the case with this critical testing initiative.”

Al Neal wanted to know if the council was confident that the tests would be conducted in the right way: “To be effective in stopping the spread of the virus, selecting those to be tested, carrying out the tests and communicating the results are time-critical tasks,” he said. 

Cllr Margetts replied: “We don’t know how long the national system will take to recover enough capacity so this seems to me like a sensible step,

“At the moment cases of Covid in Wokingham are relatively low so between the national system, local health and these back-up provisions, I feel we are doing absolutely the best we can to be prepared for whatever may come and protect our residents.”

And the council was confident that the results would be timely. 

Mike Smith wanted to know who the key-workers would be and if the tests would be available for residents and non-residents alike. 

“The Government’s national testing system scheme is available to all who need it,” Cllr Margetts said. “It would be wrong to rule specific groups in or out of that at this stage.

“These tests will be for the management of situations in Wokingham if we cannot secure capacity through the national route first. 

“If there were residents outside of Wokingham that couldn’t get tested and it was critical that they did for the management of a situation in Wokingham then we would consider it.”

Mr Smith said that he understood the council was buying 500 tests and wanted to know who the keyworkers would be. 

Cllr Margetts said that as the situation was “fluid and changing” it was hard to give a precise answer, and the tests would be used on a case-by-case basis, judged by senior councillors and management at the council, with no specific criteria at this point. 

Cllr Halsall said that should the tests be necessary, “if we needed to hold a special executive meeting each week to discuss it we will do so”. 

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Cllr Lindsay Ferris, said that the purchase was a “good insurance policy” and the party backed the council’s plans to purchase the tests. 

He asked: “What criteria/protocol is going to be used to decide who receives a WBC funded test, particularly if there are a number of people/areas who may need such a test?”

Responding, Cllr Margetts said that the tests would be “Reserved for emergency situations for example where there is a significant outbreak and national testing cannot be rapidly deployed or where lack of national testing poses a risk to the capacity of local authority services.

“The decision about when to use Wokingham Borough Council testing will be made by WBC Public Health Lead Ingrid Slade and Director of Adult Social Care Matt Pope, in consultation with WBC senior management team and the Lead Member for Wellbeing and Adult Services.” 

He added: “The key here is to keep watching,” when it came to deploying the tests. 

Cllr Halsall also added that Cllr Ferris would be consulted. 

Cllr Margetts said that it was hoped that the tests would be available from early October. 

Next to ask a question was Labour’s Cllr Andy Croy, who asked for more details on the ‘other key workers’. Cllr Croy was not present, so Cllr Halsall read the question.

Cllr Margetts reiterated his previous answers, adding: “It would be wrong to rule specific groups in or out of that at this stage as we don’t know what those situations will be (where localised testing is needed).”

Introducing the debate, Cllr Margetts said: “I believe that this is the right thing to do.”

He outlined some of the steps that the council had carried out this year, including procuring PPE equipment in April and stopping Covid patients from being discharged from hospitals and placed into borough care homes. 

During the discussion, Cllr John Kaiser said that the executive had received several questions about how to protect the vulnerable and that the purchasing of the tests fitted with that desire to look after residents. 

Cllr Charlotte Haitham-Taylor shared how a school had been unable to access tests, which “had a huge impact on the community”. Having the tests would mean that the council could step in quickly if necessary. 

Cllr Gregor Murray wanted to know what the likely scenarios would be across the borough over the next few months. 

Cllr Margetts said that track and trace was not far off 90% “which is encouraging”, but that “in the months ahead we will face continued outbreaks”. The council would have some track and trace responsibilities in the coming weeks, and that he had every confidence in the council officers would carry that out.

During the summing up of the discussion, Cllr Halsall thanked the Lib Dems for their support. 

The vote was carried unanimously. 

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