Testing scandal: Ebbsfleet Covid test centre shut to become post-Brexit lorry park

15 September 2020, 14:45 | Updated: 15 September 2020, 15:02

One of Ebbsfleet International's car parks was used as a testing site
One of Ebbsfleet International's car parks was used as a testing site. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A coronavirus test centre at Ebbsfleet International station in Kent has been closed so it can be replaced by a lorry park for custom checks after Brexit.

The government are planning to use the site if the UK leaves the European Union without a deal at the end of the transition period on 31 December, according to a leaked Kent County Council letter.

Ebbsfleet's Covid-19 test centre was closed "out of the blue" two weeks ago, according to the document, because it would be needed by HMRC to deal with the impact of No Deal.

The letter says: "We have also been notified that the Ebbsfleet testing centre has closed, as the site is required by HMRC for EU exit."

A government spokesperson said: "Regional testing sites were set up at great speed and selected for their immediate availability, security and access.

"The regional testing site at Ebbsfleet has ceased operations and a new regional testing site is operating at Curtis Way, Rochester. The relocation will allow the network to continue operating as long as needed.

Read more: No Covid tests available in top 10 England hotspots

Read more: NHS staff off work due to lack of testing, bosses claim

Dartford Labour councillor Sacha Gosine explained that Ebbsfleet would not be able to manage with the "logistical nightmare" a lorry park would cause.

He said there would be chaos on the M25 if there was any traffic accident and added: "The infrastructure at Ebbsfleet cannot cope with lorries."

Cllr Gosine continued: "We are talking about pandemonium for the rest of Dartford and its residents."

Last September, planning permission was granted to allow the Ebbsfleet site to be temporarily used for customs clearance until the end of 2020.

However, despite work starting at one of the station's car parks, this was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more: Labour challenges Government over lack of tests in Covid hotspots

Watch: James O'Brien - testing fiasco 'failure of political leadership'

The station was being used as a test centre between April and September until staff at the site - which had a capacity for 2,000 tests a day - were told it would be shut, causing about 15 people to lose their jobs.

A new test centre has been opened about 20 minutes away in Rochester.

Speaking about the possibility of a lorry park, the government spokesperson said: "In July 2020, the government committed to spending £470m on new border infrastructure to support ports in building extra capacity to meet the new control requirements where there is space to do so, and, if necessary, to build additional inland sites across the country where checks can take place.

"Final decisions on inland sites will not be made until we have established the extent of new infrastructure that will be delivered at ports."

The government's testing regime has come under close scrutiny in recent weeks after an increase in demand led to shortages in local areas and in England's hotspots.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had promised a “world-beating” testing operation would be in place by June, but it is now said to be "in chaos".

Health Secretary Matt Hancock acknowledged that there were "operational challenges" in the testing system as he was summoned to answer an urgent question on the situation in the Commons.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth questioned him on the findings.

He said: "Yesterday, LBC revealed that there are no tests available in Covid hotspots including Rochdale, Pendle and Bradford.

"Over the weekend in Bolton, a mobile testing centre failed to turn up. In Bury, hundreds queued for five hours for a test. In Walsall, a father with his sick child travelled to an appointment in Wales only to find on arrival that tests had run out.

"When tracing consistently fails to reach 80 per cent on contacts, when 20 per cent of those with symptoms self isolate properly and there is a lack of financial security, infections rise.

"So extra demand was inevitable. So why didn't he use the summer to expand testing and perfect test and trace? Why did he not plan for shortages of staff in lighthouse labs?

"Most importantly, people want to know when they will get a test and when his will be fixed. When will people be able to book a test online again? When will people no longer have to travel hundreds of miles for a test? When will school children and NHS staff be able to access tests and get back to work and school?

"He needs to fix testing now."

Mr Hancock explained that capacity for testing is at an all time high. He also read out figures for testing capacity in the top ten areas in England.

"We processed yesterday over 9,000 tests in the pillar two testing capacity in those top ten local authority areas," he said.

“If you cannot book a test now, or the location or time are not convenient, try again in a few hours. Do not call the helplines – you will not be able to get a test this way.”

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