ROBERT HARDMAN examines new Covid-19 testing machines after Mail Force donates £1m in lab equipment


To the untrained eye, it could be a photocopier with a few plastic trays on top. 

Except that you need to wear a gown, mask and gloves and enter a secure zone via two pressurised doors to access this particular piece of dull grey machinery. 

It is also one that plays a vital role in keeping operations running smoothly at Britain’s busiest children’s hospital.

To the untrained eye, it could be a photocopier with a few plastic trays on top except you need to wear a gown, mask and gloves and enter a secure zone to access this particular piece of dull grey machinery

Covid-19 may be hell-bent on giving us a miserable autumn followed by a non-existent Christmas. 

But here at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, staff are determined to keep things as normal as possible as the nights start to close in and the wards enter what one doctor calls ‘the business months’.

That can only happen, of course, if the staff can keep turning up for work. 

And that, in turn, is entirely dependent on a fast, accurate system of testing – not just for Covid-19 but for all respiratory viruses; and not just for patients but, just as importantly, for staff and those who live with them.

If, say, a doctor or nurse has a child with a mild temperature, then the whole family must isolate for a fortnight. 

However, as soon as it can be established that the child has something other than Covid, then it is business as usual back at the hospital. 

And at Alder Hey, a world-class paediatric centre where instant treatment is so often a life-saver, speed is vital. 

Now, thanks to the generosity of the donors to our Mail Force campaign, that process is about to get a lot faster following the acquisition of £260,000 of new testing equipment which is due to arrive within weeks. 

It will more than double the hospital’s existing testing capacity overnight.

‘It really will make a difference to the care of all our patients,’ says Alder Hey’s Dr Beatriz Larru Martinez, a specialist in paediatric infectious diseases. 

‘At this time of year, in particular, it’s very difficult to distinguish between Covid and other illnesses in children but it is crucial that we do. Without that information, we don’t even know who can go in which bed.’

But here at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, staff are determined to keep things as normal as possible as the nights start to close in and the wards enter what one doctor calls 'the business months'

 But here at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, staff are determined to keep things as normal as possible as the nights start to close in and the wards enter what one doctor calls ‘the business months’

This equipment does not just test for Covid but for a whole menu of respiratory nasties – from various types of influenza to whooping cough. 

The donation follows long discussions with the Alder Hey Children’s Charity which raises extra funds to enhance every aspect of hospital life.

As well as upgrading and expanding the hospital’s existing testing systems, Mail Force is providing Alder Hey with five portable air purification machines for use across three different units.

The threat of infection means treatment rooms must stand empty for up to an hour after each consultation to minimise the risk of virus lingering in the air.

Inevitably, that has hit countless appointments. These new machines, costing a total of £30,000, will slash those clearance times to minutes, allowing many more staff to see many more patients.

In short, Mail Force is helping a leading hospital ensure that its staff are not just safer but that they can see more sick children.

Not that anyone is likely to see the new equipment in action.

I have to be escorted through a secure zone into the hospital’s microbiology unit at the back of this vast state-of-the-art campus and have to go through two airlocks before reaching the nerve centre of the testing operation.

Inside the main lab, I meet biomedical scientist Kate Ball who gives me an idiot-proof tour of the Biofire testing system which is sitting on the bench in front of us.

Covid swab tests delivered here can be turned around with pinpoint accuracy in 44 minu1tes, along with a diagnosis on all manner of other viruses. 

However, this machine currently handles just four tests at a time. Mail Force is increasing the number of modules to 12, tripling its capacity.

Further down the corridor, Kate shows me another machine called a Cepheid. This does Covid-only testing in under an hour (though it can be reprogrammed later to test for other viruses).

Currently, it is used for urgent Covid checks, perhaps when a doctor is preparing for emergency surgery and an instant diagnosis is required. 

Thanks to Mail Force, it will now double its capacity.

Mail Force is now awaiting bids for a further £100,000 of test equipment for other UK hospitals

Mail Force is now awaiting bids for a further £100,000 of test equipment for other UK hospitals

‘We think of Alder Hey more like a family than a hospital,’ says mother of three Emma Weaver, 38. 

‘It’s a very special place and anything that helps those amazing staff is something we are very grateful for.’

Emma, a nurse from Neston, Cheshire, and husband Leigh, went through the agony of losing their infant daughter, Georgie, at just five days old. 

Both Alder Hey’s intensive care unit and its bereavement centre were ‘brilliant’ during that traumatic period.

‘With or without Covid, we see 330,000 patients a year. We’ve also got the biggest paediatric intensive care unit in the UK,’ says John Armstrong of the Alder Hey Children’s Charity.

The Scrooge-like spectre of Covid is already threatening to spoil some of the much-loved Christmas traditions here.

The big party for Alder Hey’s festive lights is at risk. Ditto the eagerly-anticipated visits from all the players at both Liverpool and Everton Football Clubs.

I certainly won’t pretend that a few crates of state-of-the-art technology are much of a substitute.

But if it all helps to keep the show on the road here this winter, it has to be worth a toast.

The charity so generously backed by our readers will provide £290,000 of equipment for one of the largest children's hospitals in Europe, Alder Hey in Liverpool (pictured)

The charity so generously backed by our readers will provide £290,000 of equipment for one of the largest children’s hospitals in Europe, Alder Hey in Liverpool (pictured)

Thousands of frontline NHS workers are to receive more than £1million of high-speed Covid testing kit – thanks to a major initiative by Mail Force.

The charity so generously backed by our readers will provide £290,000 of equipment for one of the largest children’s hospitals in Europe, Alder Hey in Liverpool.

Mail Force is donating machines to ramp up testing and purification systems to maximise the hospital’s capacity ahead of its busiest period of the year.

Our historic campaign has received overwhelming support from all corners of the kingdom – so the charity is determined that the whole of the country will benefit.

Specialist diagnostic units, each worth £80,000, will soon be on their way to three island trusts – Stornoway in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland – greatly reducing the number of test samples that have to be flown to the mainland. 

Many more results will, instead, be returned locally in under an hour.

Major hospitals in Stockport, Leicester and London’s East End are earmarked for a total of £250,000 of machinery that will ramp up testing capacity for staff and patients.

It all follows Mail Force’s announcement three weeks ago of a £300,000 donation of testing kit for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London.

The charity is taking similar steps at Alder Hey for the same reason – that both are world-class institutions treating children from all over the country. 

Mail Force is now awaiting bids for a further £100,000 of test equipment for other UK hospitals.

The charity’s new initiative exceeds £1million and was last night applauded as ‘great news’ by Professor Stephen Powis, the NHS’s national medical director. 

He added: ‘Thanks to Mail Force, patients and staff across the country will benefit from additional state-of-the-art testing equipment and technology.

‘As a result, thousands more tests for coronavirus can now be completed by machine, freeing up NHS staff time and helping turn around Covid test results more quickly for patients in need of urgent care.’

This newspaper launched Mail Force in April as an emergency response to the national shortage of personal protective equipment facing frontline healthcare staff.

Donations poured in from tens of thousands of Mail readers and leading philanthropists, and the total has passed £11million. 

Mail Force has since procured a vast range of PPE and sent tens of millions of items to grateful hospitals, care homes and charities around Britain.

Driven by the original purpose of helping frontline staff, the charity’s trustees have now allocated funds for testing equipment on the basis that this is now the most pressing issue when it comes to protecting healthcare staff.

As with our PPE, the technology has been commissioned in close consultation with NHS procurement teams, to ensure the most appropriate kit goes to the right places.

The list includes a £150,000 Swiss-built Hamilton STAR robotic pipetting system, used in larger laboratories, to help process thousands of tests every day. 

The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel will receive one of those.

‘I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to Daily Mail readers for their enormous generosity,’ said Alwen Williams, group chief executive of Barts Health NHS Trust, yesterday. 

‘The Royal London cares for some of the most deprived parts of East London. 

‘This donation will not only make a difference to our patients ahead of their planned surgery but also to our incredible staff who are working around the clock.’

Other trusts will receive the £50,000 Thermofisher Kingfisher which extracts DNA and its sibling, RNA, from swab samples.

Both the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust and Stockport NHS Foundation Trust can look forward to receiving these.

The three island-based hospital trusts in Scotland are each to receive a standalone system called a BD Max which can operate in the simplest laboratory setting without specialist training.

Thanking Mail readers, Colin Sinclair, chief executive of NHS National Services Scotland, said: ‘These machines will support their continued hard work safeguarding our island communities.’ 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk