Maintaining quality control in testing times – UKAS

UKAS is the National Accreditation Body for the United Kingdom. They are appointed by government, to assess and accredit organisations that provide services. Here Lorraine Turner, Accreditation Director, discusses how they have worked during the pandemic to ensure that accreditation continues to deliver a globally recognised assessment system that demonstrates international standards are being met.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic forced the government to take quick and decisive action, resulting in the implementation of restrictions on daily lives and business activities. As highlighted in the Public Services Committee’s A critical juncture for public services: lessons from Covid-19 report published in November, this national emergency has been challenging for all providers of public services.

During these unprecedented times, the need for reliable, competent, consistent and verifiable services is as high as ever. In its role as the National Accreditation Body (NAB) for the UK, UKAS has been working closely with government and conformity assessment bodies (those providing laboratory, calibration, inspection and certification services) to ensure that accreditation continues to deliver a globally recognised assessment system which demonstrates that international standards are being met.

Recognised by Minsters as the “Gold Standard”, accreditation of an organisation provides confidence in the fitness for purpose of an organisation’s services. As such it is essential that the confidence accreditation provides to government, stakeholders, conformity assessment bodies, their customers and the general public is not diminished during the pandemic.

Testing times

High quality testing forms a key part of the government’s strategy for managing the Covid-19 pandemic. As the number of Covid-19 testing providers continues to grow, it is essential that an appropriate level of confidence can be placed in the testing services. Accreditation for Covid-19 testing introduces a vital level of quality assurance to the process and demonstrates the competence of a laboratory to perform valid test procedures and provide reliable results. Consequently, helping laboratories deliver high quality, reliable tests is a priority for UKAS. UKAS has been closely involved in supporting the Department of Health and Social Care and developing accreditation processes that are adjusted to current conditions without compromising standards.

Maintaining quality control in testing times

Extending accredited testing capacity

Due to the emergency and the public health demand it was accepted that testing for Covid-19 had to commence at pace and before accreditation could be awarded. To help the government’s effort to ensure patients and the public have access to reliable testing, UKAS implemented a simplified fast track application process for already accredited laboratories to extend their scope of accreditation to encompass Covid-19 diagnostic testing.

So far UKAS has conducted over 80 assessments from both public sector and private laboratories wishing to extend their scope of accreditation to include Covid-19 testing, with over 30 being granted accreditation to date.

Assessing private providers

In November DHSC announced that private providers of Covid-19 testing wishing to offer general population testing and/or participate in the “Testing to Release for International Travel” scheme would have to meet certain minimum standards and gain UKAS accredited for Covid-19 testing.

Maintaining quality control in testing times

To ensure quality standards are applied, ‘Testing to Release for International Travel’ can only be conducted by a private testing provider selected from a DHSC approved list. Providers wishing to be included on this list have to apply for a three-stage UKAS evaluation process. Those who successfully complete all three stages of the process will be granted UKAS accredited status for Covid-19 testing. A similar process has been established for private providers offering testing to the general population.

This three-stage approach has been developed to enable users to understand where providers are in the process as they progress towards UKAS accreditation. Making UKAS application and subsequent appraisal a compulsory requirement for private providers is a vital stepping-stone on the path to meeting the government’s aim that all providers of Covid-19 testing gain UKAS accreditation by summer 2021.

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