Rapid testing in Gloucestershire

Gloucestershire County Council set up a rapid testing centre at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester in early December, before launching one in the community.

This is part of a series of case-studies published on 9 February 2021

  • Ran a testing centre at a local university before launching one in the community
  • Site runs on booking basis and public are guided through test - “privacy booths” available for people with specific needs, such as Muslim women
  • Council has refined its approach, including recruiting a site operational manager and reconfiguring reception areas

What was done?

Gloucestershire County Council set up a rapid testing centre at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester in early December. The university has a small number of students – just over 1,000 - and so it offered a great chance to pilot testing with their students before they returned home for Christmas. A local sixth form college and secondary school were also given access to the site.

The testing centre was set up in a hall on the campus. It ran for three weeks in the run up to Christmas.

Deputy Director of Public Health Siobhan Farmer said: “We had initially planned to use the testing centre for care home visitors, but then the government announced this would happen nationally.

When we heard the university were happy to work with us, it seemed the ideal opportunity to test out our plans and learn for the future. It taught us a lot, which has helped us develop our approach and enabled us to share what we found worked well with other councils.”

After that, the council set up a community rapid testing centre in Gloucester, in an area of higher deprivation, where we know that the community has been more impacted by COVID-19. A community centre was chosen that was well known to the local population.

Ms Farmer said: “Infection rates were rising and we know this population is particularly vulnerable so that’s why we chose that area. We were soon in a national lockdown, so we have had to be careful about the messaging as we want all those that can stay at home, to do so.

“We know some people in our target communities are more likely to be in jobs and roles which mean that they still have to leave home for work, so we were encouraging them to come forward for testing.

At first, we promoted it just to people in the areas surrounding the centre, but we have now extended that to people living and working in the whole city.”

The centre works on a booking system and users are assisted in carrying out the test with a member of staff providing guidance from behind a Perspex screen.

The centre can test more than 500 people a day, using 10 booths, but has been operating at just over half its capacity, with six booths running. Between 12 to 16 staff are need per shift with two team leaders on site to manage them.

Lessons learned

Head of Transformation Jennifer Taylor said staffing the centres has been a real challenge. “When we ran the centre at the RAU we had redeployed around 10 staff, including colleagues from the fire and rescue service. But with the Gloucester site we have had to rely more on recruiting agency staff.

“There are plenty of people looking for work. We have recruited a number of people who used to work in the hospitality industry – they are ideally suited because of their people skills.

“But we have found there is quite a high turnover. The centre is open 8am to 7pm, seven days a week and because we don’t know how long they will be running for – the government has only said for the foreseeable future – we cannot offer long-term contracts, so that creates a degree of uncertainty for staff.”

Ms Taylor said the council has made changes to the way the centre is run. “When people turn up they have a QR code they need to scan and we have to collect their personal details. This is only meant to take 10 minutes – and for those who are digitally savvy you can go through it much more quickly.

“But not everyone is. Some do not have mobile phones or English may not be their first language. We began to get concerned about social distancing and so introduced some booths in the reception area.

“Another step we have taken with the Gloucester centre is to appoint a site operations manager. It is someone with a military background and has proved invaluable. There is a lot of logistics to manage – you cannot underestimate that. There are stock levels, PPE and risk assessments to do.”

Next steps

Gloucestershire is looking to set up other community rapid testing centres in Cirencester and the Forest of Dean area, which had higher levels of infections during wave three.

Ms Farmer said: “With rural areas such as the Forest of Dean we will have to think carefully about making sure there is good access. You need quite specific requirements - a hard floor, not carpet, so that you can clean if you drop the agents, good ventilation, square footage, separate entrance and exits.

“As strange as it may sound, there are not that many spaces like that, even in a big county like ours, especially with sites already having been taken for vaccination and PCR testing.

“Beyond that, we will have to see how this develops. There is a big expectation for these testing centres. But we would need a significant number to fully cover a county the size of ours. However, there are costs – and we need to be able to justify that investment of time and money and we don’t yet know what the future holds for this testing strategy. We have thought about a mobile unit, but the numbers of sites we might need to deploy that to make this difficult.

“We think rapid testing does have a role to play in breaking cycles of transmission, but we would like a more detailed long-term national strategy to help us develop at a pace that makes best use of our resources at a time when we also need to make sure the public have good information about and access to the vaccination rollout.”