GP practices struggling to get hold of Covid lateral flow tests (LFTs) can access a ‘significant contingency supply’, according to NHS England.
GP practices should contact the regional testing lead to ‘ensure that staff can be tested and return to work, when safe to do so’, a GP bulletin sent on Thursday last week (30 December) said.
NHS England said this comes as it has ‘heard from all primary care contractor groups that access to Covid-19 testing, both lateral flow tests (LFT) and PCR, is still proving challenging’.
Health secretary Sajid Javid has admitted the supply of LFTs would have to be ‘constrained’ in the first two weeks of January due to increasing demand.
The GP bulletin said: ‘Through regional testing leads, a significant contingency supply of LFTs has been distributed to the NHS and local authorities to be used in times of extremis.’
It also said GPs could get preferential access to PCR tests if they struggle to book one via the usual routes.
NHS England said: ‘Where PCR testing through normal routes is unavailable, Pillar 1 capacity may be utilised. This is dependent on local need and agreement, and the availability of staff to enable swabbing.’
But the BMA has said the current method of prioritisation, where health workers indicate their key worker status by ticking a box when ordering Covid tests online, is not working.
It said that ‘the way in which key workers are supposedly being given priority for lateral flow and PCR tests isn’t working as BMA members report inability to get test kits or get a PCR test.’
BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has no doubt had a massive impact on demand for lateral flow test kits and PCR tests, however it is vital that the promised new supply of kits are offered to key workers such as health and social care staff as a priority.
‘Being unable to get the tests means staff may not be legally allowed to work and at a time of acute workforce shortages and winter pressures this could be devastating for the care that can be given right across the NHS.’
And GP leads said they do not yet have confirmation that they will be receiving a contingency supply of LFTs for emergencies.
Kent LMC chair and GP Dr Gaurav Gupta told Pulse he knew of practices where there have been ‘issues with LFT supplies’ but did not know ‘any more’ about potential extra tests.
He said: ‘It would be useful for us to get more lateral flow supplies because if you’re supposed to be ending your self-isolation based on lateral flow tests, then we will need a lot more tests to make sure that staffing is protected during the surge of the Omicron variant.’
Chief executive of Cambridgeshire LMC and GP Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer told Pulse the situation with testing is ‘an entirely predictable and preventable sequence of events’.
She said: ‘It seems almost inexplicable, given the meetings and the resources that have gone into this area of the pandemic, that there wouldn’t be some kept in reserved for emergency channels such as frontline, NHS staff, police, fire, etc. Especially at a predictable phase of the pandemic during winter where it was highly likely there’s going to be a surge, even before Omicron presented.’
Dr Bramall-Stainer added: ‘There needs to be a fast-track PCR site for frontline workers, be it ambulance, police, fire, NHS. That needs to be ring-fenced in my opinion, for continuity of essential services.’
It comes as the Government has reduced the self-isolation period for people who test positive for Covid from 10 days to seven in England, subject to negative LFT results.