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GPs to provide Covid antibody testing for patients who have bloods taken

GPs should offer Covid-19 antibody testing to patients who are having bloods taken for other reasons, if the patient wishes to know if they have had the virus, NHS England has said.

From today, practices can access Covid-19 antibody testing ‘as appropriate’ for their patients, while GPs will get access to antibody testing for themselves and their staff after acute trusts have had priority.

A letter from NHS England to NHS managers and practices said health secretary Matt Hancock has decided that patients can have the test ‘in circumstances where there is not a specific clinical indication’ but they ‘want to know whether they have been infected’ and they are ‘already having their blood taken’.

But it stressed that a positive antibody test only means the person has had Covid-19 and does not guarantee immunity.

Under the plans, GPs will need to seek consent from the patient and document this in their record.

And, upon receiving the result, it is ‘their responsibility to inform the patient of the result and that a positive test does not indicate immunity to Covid-19’

In a primary care bulletin sent this morning, by primary care medical director Dr Nikki Kanani, NHS England confirmed that ‘all patients for whom bloods are being ordered can have a Covid-19 antibody test added from today if appropriate’.

But GPs expressed concern about the added workload and responsibility. Commenting on Twitter, Dr Yvette Rean from Kent said ‘fuming doesn’t come close’, adding that the result would be ‘irrelevant’ to both GPs and patients.

Meanwhile, GPs will also be given access to antibody testing for themselves and their staff.

It will be up to each NHS region to coordinate testing of staff and set up specific arrangements, said the letter from  NHS England national medical director Professor Steve Powis and national director for emergency and elective care Pauline Philip.

The letter, which clarified that the test should ‘progressively be offered to NHS staff who want it’ said this would include those in primary care among all other staff groups.

‘Regions should plan to test members of staff who want the test as quickly as they can, starting early this week as soon as pathology networks are ready to begin processing samples. The likely staff groups to test first are in acute Trusts in which prevalence has been highest,’ it added.

GPs should be able to access results for themselves and their staff via the local NHS pathology network within 24 hours, with the letter noting that staff must also sign a consent form, and that the result should not go on their employment record.

But NHS England stressed that ‘whatever the result of the test for antibodies, all staff must still follow all the PPE and infection control guidance’, because as it stands there ‘ is currently no evidence to show it means someone cannot be re-infected with the virus, or pass it on to others, or have protective immunity’.

It added that Public Health England is currently ‘conducting a study to establish whether antibodies detected by this test do indicate immunity’, and it said it was tasked by the Department of Health and Social Care to report the numbers of NHS staff tested and found to have antibodies.

NHS England also said it was awaiting ‘further scientific guidance and decisions from DHSC as to whether staff will be tested once, or whether this will be a rolling programme with repeat testing offered to staff’.

The news comes as the Government has introduced the next stage of its strategy to ‘control’ the virus, with the rollout of a ‘test and trace’ service earlier this week and an easing of the lockdown which means several people can meet outside, at social distance, including in gardens.