Lancashire brings in the army to lead the way with new Covid-19 testing scheme

Lancashire is leading the way in a new programme of Covid-19 testing.

By Catherine Musgrove
Friday, 8th January 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Friday, 8th January 2021, 8:32 am

It has been revealed that 420 army personnel are working out of a base at Lancashire Constabulary headquarters in Hutton, where they are spearheading asymptomatic testing in hotspot areas such as large businesses, schools and faith centres, then training people in those locations on how to test daily, using lateral flow kits provided by Lancashire County Council.

The operation started three weeks ago, and has three weeks still to run. So far,more than 7,500 people have been tested, with 2.04 per cent showing positive results.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who is also MP for Wyre and Preston North, visited the operation centre yesterday.

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Defence Secretary Ben Wallace being briefed by Lt Col Mat Davis

He said: “We need to get on top of this and lessons are being learned all the time. We know that with very one of these people we find can help slow the spread.”

Mr Wallace was briefed by Lt Col Mat Davis, commanding officer of 2 REME, who is running the operation of 40 teams of six soldiers.

Lt Col Davis said: “We are on track for success and gaining momentum. When we leave here, I believe there will be a greater testing capability than what is currently here.”

So far, the team has been to 60 different settings across the county, with notable hotspots found in warehouses where staff live in houses of multiple occupation.

Testing being carried out at Lancashire Police HQ

So far, five settings have been trained in how to carry out lateral flow tests, with the figure set to rise to 20 by the end of the week.

Lt Col Davis believes when the army leave Lancashire to roll out the scheme in other counties, there will be the capacity to carry out 4,000 tests a day.

Officers were keen to point out that this “was not the Liverpool model”, which saw around 3,000 soldiers sent to the city to carry out mass asymptomatic testing.

That was seen as too resource heavy for the British Army with 80,000 soldiers. Instead, this scheme has been requested by Lancashire County Council, and is the first MACA (Military Aid to Civil Authorities) for testing in the country.

Army personnel at work at the operation centre in Hutton

Lancashire was chosen because when the request was made in October, the county had one of the highest rates of infection in the UK.

Sites chosen are decided by local public health bosses and requests from businesses and groups themselves.

Lt Col Davis said he has been “overwhelmed” by the warm response of Lancastrians to the testing, and believes training workplaces and faith groups to conduct testing themselves will help remove fear and prejudices.

When asked why workplaces were being targeted, Mr Wallace said: “Because we have to keep the economy going and keep defence supplies going.”

MP Ben Wallace in the operations centre at Hutton

He added: “My consituents have been locked down since August 8 and I know it’s been really tough with all the different tier restrictions and now the latest lockdown. I think that other parts of the country forget that.

“But it is the classic Lancashire way - that people just get on and do it. It is something of great pride to me.”

He added: “The local councils are also working well together her in Lancashire, they are not playing politics.”

The army and vaccinations

Mr Wallace said the army was “ready to work 24 hours a day” if required, to help with the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines.

He said 21 teams of six army personelle were already on standby, and there are plans to grow this to 250 teams if necessary.

MP Ben Wallace inspecting the testing lab

He said: “At the moment, demand is keeping pace with the number of vaccines, but if the number of vaccines increases, we can deliver 125-150,000 a day if need be.”

He said he believes by February, soldiers will be giving injections, and that combat medics were well placed to deliver jabs in hard-to-reach locations and in villages where there aren't any GP surgeries.