COVID19 | Testing
The government is focussing efforts on the testing for coronavirus over the coming weeks, according to The Guardian newspaper
The UK government has bought 3.5m antibody tests for coronavirus, the health secretary has said, promising that frontline doctors and nurses will be able in due course to find out whether they have been infected and are safe to go back to work.
Matt Hancock’s statement during the daily government briefing will be welcomed by staff. The absence of any testing for doctors and nurses has deeply upset many who work in the NHS, saying they risk infecting patients and their families and they may needlessly have to isolate at home, unable to care for those sick with Covid-19.
But as yet there is no timing on the arrival of the tests, which will not tell people whether they have Covid-19 but whether they have had it, and patients in hospital will take priority over staff.
Hancock said he understood why NHS staff in particular and others in public service were so keen to see testing ramped up. The antibody tests “will allow people to see whether they have had the virus and are immune to it and can go back to work”, he said, pointing out that he had been sitting in the House of Commons earlier with Nadine Dorries, who had recovered from Covid-19 and was now immune.
There have been a few cases of people apparently testing positive for the virus a second time, but there are suggestions that they may not be infectious.
We are ramping up,” said Hancock, adding that the antibody tests will become available “very soon”. The Department of Health and Social Care was opening a facility in Milton Keynes that day to process tests, he said.
The tests currently in use can detect the presence of the virus in a nose swab. At the moment, around 8,000 a day are being performed on the sickest patients in hospital to help with decisions about their treatment. They are not offered to staff. The government has promised to increase those to 25,000 a day.
The antibody test is not to establish whether somebody currently has Covid-19 but whether they have recovered from it. Antibodies to the virus in their blood will reveal whether they have been infected – and it is assumed that, if so, they will be immune. That will enable NHS staff to know that they can return to work without infecting patients.
Hancock also had words of reassurance for frontline healthcare workers who have been calling for more and better personal protective equipment – especially the masks recommended by the World Health Organization, called FFP3.
“Many, many people are asking for more personal protective equipment,” he said. Hancock said they had secured 7.5 million items, including the FFP3 masks, in the past 24 hours and there was now a hotline for hospitals to call if they did not have supplies. “It is literally a military effort to get these pieces of kit out to people,” he said.
Earlier, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, voiced the concerns of NHS staff at the absence of testing.
“Trust leaders tell us repeatedly that testing is a vital concern on the NHS frontline. The NHS is rapidly scaling up testing capacity from 1,500, with the aim of carrying out 25,000 tests a day,” said Chris Hopson.
“But the focus, for now, is on testing patients rather than NHS staff. So when those staff – or people they live with – have suspected coronavirus symptoms, they are rightly going into isolation. That’s causing disruption and frustration as the NHS workforce is depleted at this crucial time.
“The quicker testing capacity is increased, the larger the number of staff, as well as patients, can be tested.
“The promised deployment of a simple antibody test, which is now being trialled, will also help, though this will inevitably take time to consistently reach the NHS frontline.
“But for now it’s clear block testing large numbers of the NHS’s 1.2 million staff is not feasible. So we need a proper open discussion about who should be prioritised, and we need clarity about how quickly testing capacity can grow.”
Labour’s health spokesman, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “We have repeatedly called for the government to ramp up testing over a number of weeks. We need urgent clarification from ministers about what their testing plan is and why action appears to have been taken so late.”
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