Lewisham is set to open its usual base for council meetings as a testing centre, the overview and scrutiny business panel was told on Tuesday (December 15).

The Civic Suite in Catford will be used as a new testing centre for Covid-19 using the rapid lateral flow devices.

It’s hoped it will be ready before Christmas.

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Lewisham’s head of public services, Ralph Wilkinson, explained the plans as he updated the committee on the council’s response to Covid-19.

“We’re doing our best to get that live before Christmas but it’s a massive task to kit it out, you’ve got to recruit and train staff, and we’ve got to make sure it operates properly,” he said.

He said a lot has happened since the update report was written.

“London’s and Lewisham’s infection rates are rising. On Friday our seven-day infection rate was at 127 per 100,000, today (December 15) it’s at 184 and we expect that to increase.

“Lewisham is one of the lower boroughs but we are still concerned about that rising rate,” he said.

Mr Wilkinson praised the response from schools in the borough – he said five had to close this week because of the number of infections and nine more have significant issues.

“We’ve had a pilot running in Sedgehill School that’s been using the rapid tests.

“That’s to test staff and pupils to pick up asymptomatic cases so that if they do prove positive we can make sure they isolate and break that chain of transmission.

“There’s been lots of talk about rolling out that testing in schools for a safe return in January, but as you can imagine it will be a massive exercise,” he said.

Mr Wilkinson said critical services are running well and said the local test and trace service, which started in mid-November, has improved contact rates.

“Nationally they were achieving 75 per cent, we’re now achieving just over 90 per cent,” he said.

Alongside the Covid-19 response, Mr Wilkinson said the council is making sure other critical work – such as cuts – continue.

But he said: “We are worried about how are staff are coping with this.”

Chair of the children and young people’s select committee, Cllr Luke Sorba, again raised concerns about the amount of resource testing asymptomatic people takes.

He said: “SAGE reported that mass testing using lateral flow in Liverpool failed to pick up 51 per cent of cases.”

But Mr Wilkinson said: “It’s one tool that’s part of a range of tools. The information I’m seeing is that one case in every three is asymptomatic, so there is a massive need to identify asymptomatic cases.

“I wasn’t aware it failed to pick up 51 per cent of cases in Liverpool, that’s not the figure I saw.

“But even if that was the case it found 49 per cent and if we can take 49 per cent of asymptomatic cases out of the equation then that’s making a big difference to how the virus spreads.”

Dr Catherine Mbema, director of public health at Lewisham, was asked about what advice she would give residents for meeting family over Christmas.

Despite calls for tougher measures, the Government said on Wednesday that the relaxation of the rules between December 23 and 27 would not be reversed.

Dr Mbema said: “My advice would be: though that national guidance is available, there is nothing wrong with having a quiet Christmas.

“Though the advice is that you can have a Christmas bubble, we most certainly don’t have to take that offer up.

“Seeing that sharp increase in cases for London, including Lewisham, I would say to exercise caution.”