The government has finally agreed to upgrade Stoke-on-Trent’s Covid-19 testing centre – meaning North Staffordshire residents will no longer have to travel miles to get a test.
From early next week people will be able to book a test at the bet365 Stadium site, after the Department of Health and Social Care agreed to change it from a ‘satellite’ to a ‘regional’ testing centre.
This follows weeks of lobbying by community leaders, local MPs and StokeonTrentLive on behalf of local residents who have been left frustrated by the testing system.
The centre at the bet365 Stadium has previously been only been available for certain key workers, such as frontline NHS and care staff – although the city council has been able to arrange tests for some others.
As a result, the bet365 site has been underused for weeks, while North Staffordshire residents booking tests through the government website have been directed to the nearest regional centre at Manchester Airport – an 80-mile round trip – or even further afield. They included other key workers, such as warehouse staff, and potentially-vulnerable pensioners.
StokeonTrentLive and Sentinel reporter Joe Burn raised the issue with Boris Johnson at the Downing Street briefing on April 30, and the Prime Minister said he would look into the problem.
While the Army set up a mobile testing centre in Etruria the following day, meaning people could finally book a local test, this facility was moved away a few days later. And the Department of Health and Social Care then refused a request from local NHS officials to upgrade the bet365 site into a regional testing centre, leaving most people unable to get a test in Stoke-on-Trent once again.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council leader Abi Brown and Stoke-on-Trent North MP Jonathan Gullis have repeatedly raised the issue with government, with both writing to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and then the Prime Minister.
And whenever The Sentinel asked DHSC about the status of the bet365 site officials always sent the same stock response.
But the government has now finally agreed to the requests to upgrade the testing centre.
The decision has been welcomed by community leaders in North Staffordshire.
Mrs Brown said: “We’ve been really clear for the need for the testing centre at the bet365 Stadium to be given regional status. I wrote to the Prime Minister again on this matter on Tuesday.
“I’m really pleased that this has now, just days later, been recognised by government and is being acted on. Work will now take place to make the changes needed to increase capacity and strengthen the facilities to accommodate this, so that it is ready by the end of next week.
“It’s important to recognise the role of the bet365 Stadium on this too, we are grateful that they are continuing to make their facilities available to support our city at this time.
“The centre to date has been used to test frontline public sector keyworkers. It is a great asset to have in the city, but with such a restricted use, it hasn’t been working to capacity and, put simply, it could and should be supporting the needs of so many more residents during these most difficult of times.
“I have been hugely concerned that our residents have been directed to Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and even Northern Ireland for Covid-19 testing.
“Our city is ready and willing to support the wider provision of testing that is such an important factor in helping to control this horrible disease. I look forward to more information being released by government in the coming days on how our residents can use the facility.”
Jack Brereton, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, said, “The Bet365 Stadium testing centre was set up very quickly by the hard work of our local NHS and council staff, with the support of everyone at Stoke City Football Club.
“It was not right, however, for everyone else to have to travel up to 80 miles for a test, and I am delighted that our requests to the Department of Health have been successful.”
Mr Gullis said, “I am absolutely delighted to get the news that the Bet365 Stadium has been approved as a regional testing centre for people across the city, including my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke.
“This makes total sense; Stoke-on-Trent is the 13th biggest city in the UK, it is absolutely right that a location this size should have its own testing centre.
“People shouldn’t have to travel so far and potentially increase the risk of infection to get tested for Covid-19.
“Previously only frontline workers could access tests at the Bet365 stadium, despite the site having plentiful space and a willing owner.
“My 10 year old constituent Ava reached out to me after her grandfather almost had to travel to Manchester to get tested, so I wrote to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health to have the testing capabilities expanded at bet365 and I am delighted this lobbying has paid off.”
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Jo Gideon, MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said: “I’m delighted to see that our lobbying to ensure that Stoke-on-Trent’s testing centre becomes an official regional centre has been successful.
“This will mean fewer local residents will have to travel long distances for testing and more people will have access to testing at the Stoke City Bet365 site.”
Aaron Bell, MP for Newcastle, said: “I am delighted that the Government has istened to our calls to upgrade the testing centre at the bet365 Stadium to full regional status.
“Having this testing facility on our doorstep will save my constituents time and will support our national contact tracing strategy. This in turn will help our local businesses and public services in Newcastle as we recover from this terrible pandemic.”
Normacot pensioner Barrie Harrington was left baffled after being offered tests as far away as Ayr in Scotland and Derry in Northern Ireland when he tried to book one through the government website, after he developed coronavirus-like symptoms.
He welcomed the decision to upgrade the bet365 site, but believes it should have been done a lot earlier.
The 76-year-old said: “It’s great that they’ve made this change but I just don’t understand why it’s taken this long. This won’t just benefit Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle, but people in Leek, Stone, Stafford – there’s a huge area that will benefit.
“When I tried to book a test the nearest one was in Belfast, so I don’t know whether they expected me to get a plane there. In the end I didn’t bother. Fortunately I feel a lot better now.
“I have to commend the council and particularly the council leader for being so vocal about this issue. But it shouldn’t have taken this long for the government to change things.”
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