Huge demand for remote sexual health testing kits leads to £1m investment by Sheffield firm

The UK’s largest provider of remote sexual health testing kits has doubled the size of its laboratory and plans to take on 30 new staff after experiencing unprecedented demand for its services during the pandemic.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post ahead of the laboratory opening today, Ruth Poole, chief executive of Sheffield-based Preventx, said the number of people using its services after March 2020 rose by more than 200 per cent.

The business, which is funded by local authorities, has invested £1m in doubling the size of its laboratory and warehousing to cope with the demand, creating new jobs and the capacity for international expansion.

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It processes more than 300,000 tests each month from the 20,000 kits it sends to people each week.

Preventx opened a new laboratory in Sheffield yesterday. Picture: James Stanhope.

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It works with more than 60 per cent of the local authorities across England, including 30 London boroughs.

“We run the world’s biggest publicly-funded STI testing service. Globally there is nothing that comes close, which is quite phenomenal,” said Ms Poole.

Preventx, which has a £19m turnover, has continued its services all the way through the pandemic, even when other health services, including sexual health clinics had to close. It doubled its workforce to 78 to keep up with demand.

“When sexual health service clinics across the country closed, people were recommended to take an online test and so we saw the volume of people coming to use rose exponentially, by more than 200 per cent,” Ms Poole said.

She added: “People might say sexual health is not such a priority but it’s actually really important.

“As part of our service, we provide routine and emergency contraception for service users. If you think about people’s access to abortion services and unplanned pregnancies, we’re able to really help to prevent those awful situations happening by providing contraception services alongside sexual health services.”

The number of people from poorer parts of the population as well as ethnic miniorities and isolated groups have particularly embraced its testing kits during the pandemic. “We were worried that some groups could be digitally excluded but it’s actually been exactly the opposite,” Ms Poole said.

The company has more than doubled the size of its laboratory to 25,000 sq ft by taking an additional floor in an adjacent building at Meadowhall Business Park and creating a corridor between the two. It also has a new 20,000 sq ft warehouse for packing and dispatching tests, employing 22 people.

The company has also recruited a number of science graduates and is sponsoring a number of science students through their degrees.

“We’re really investing in our workforce and valuing the work they’re doing for us,” Ms Poole said. “We’ve already doubled the size of our workforce and with the new space we can double in size again. Our expectation is that within two years we’ll have 60 scientifically qualified laboratory staff working for us, up from 30.

Preventx is also keen to expand its international footprint. It recently acquired businesses in Spain and Holland, which has created additional testing work for its Sheffield laboratory. It plans to grow across northern and southern Europe.

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James Mitchinson