Community testing in North Somerset

North Somerset council started offering rapid testing at the area’s main college – Weston College in early December.

 This is part of a series of case-studies published on 29 January 2021

  • North Somerset council set up a rapid testing centre for students at its main college in December
  • The centre is now offering tests to key workers during the lockdown
  • New sites have been opened up to widen community access to testing in partnership with South Gloucestershire Council

What was done?

The council started offering rapid testing at the area’s main college – Weston College in early December. The college is split across three main campuses. A testing centre was originally set up at one site and ran for two weeks before moving to another campus. The centres have worked on a booking system and were seeing up to 200 people a day in the lead up to Christmas.

North Somerset Director of Public Health Matt Lenny said: “It worked really well. We encouraged people to be tested at least once a week – you only get the value from this if people are tested repeatedly.

“And, of course, we stress to them that a negative test is just a sign of your infectious status at that point in time. You want to guard against a false sense of reassurance and make the point it is important to keep following all the social distancing guidelines. Each person is given a card after doing the test explaining this.

“Moving the site wasn’t easy, but we wanted to offer it to students at a different campus. It has stayed there since, but now we are in lockdown we have widened access to our key workers, such as social care staff and refuse collectors.

Matt said the experience of running the site helped to prepare schools for setting up their own testing sites. “We shared lessons learnt around the logistics of how you set up these centres and how you run them. 

“We provided a briefing to schools before the start of term – at the time they were planning to set up rapid testing centres for pupils before the lockdown was introduced. We wanted to help explain what you needed to do. It does not require detailed clinical knowledge, but there are some key steps that you need to take.

“You need people who are used to communicating with the public to run the centre. We had separate entrance and exits and have operated it on a booking system to ensure we have not had big queues developing. You do need a big space so you can maintain social distancing – the first one was in a gym and the second was in a hall that can be used for conferences.”

Lessons learned

Matt said the testing unit was set up very quickly. “It was a matter of weeks from first concept to opening. When you work at this pace, you have to draw on all the expertise you have. 

We worked alongside colleagues in South Gloucestershire who set up a testing facility at their local college. That was really invaluable - sharing ideas and solving challenges together. 

“But we also drew on the help of colleagues from across the council. The IT team helped set up a booking system, while the place directorate supplied the staff to run the centres from the team that run public events. And, of course, there was input from emergency planning and public health. It was a real team effort. 

We even used our electoral booths to create separate spaces in the centres. They normally sit there idle between elections – you can repurpose equipment and facilities that you have got to do this.”

Next steps

The council is in the process of opening two more rapid testing centres. One at a community hall in Portishead which opened on 18 January and a second at a leisure centre in Weston Super Mare which opens from 26 January. 

An external provider has been taken on to run the centres, which should be able to carry out between 800 and 900 tests a day. This has been commissioned jointly with South Gloucestershire which is also setting up two sites. 

The plan is to target these at key workers and people who cannot work from home, including bus drivers and taxi drivers.