GPs are among NHS staff who will start being tested for coronavirus (Covid-19) this week, in response to widespread calls to prioritise healthcare workers.
The Department of Health and Social Care said testing facilities will be significantly ramped up to support the bid to increase the number of tests that can be carried out on a daily basis.
Across the country, universities, research institutes and companies including Boots, Amazon and Royal Mail, will lend their testing equipment to three new hub laboratories.
These labs will be used solely for coronavirus testing, and will function in addition to the pre-existing facilities of the NHS and Public Health England.
The first lab is believed to have processed around 800 samples last weekend, and Boots has already begun testing NHS workers at its Nottingham site.
According to the Government, the free-of-charge service will help to end the uncertainty of whether NHS staff need to stay at home.
Those who test negative will be permitted to return to work sooner than if they had to self-isolate for the currently mandated 14 days, bolstering the NHS’ workforce when it needs it the most.
Speaking at Friday’s press briefing, NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: ‘Today we’re announcing that we will be rolling out staff testing across the NHS, beginning next week, starting with the critical care nurses, other staff in intensive care, emergency departments, ambulance services, GP
Announcing the ramped up testing facilities, deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said: ‘Laboratory-based testing on this scale is a little like building the medical equivalent of a car factory.
‘We are assembling many different parts, some of them quite specialised and hard to find, then getting them to work accurately together in a highly co-ordinated process.
‘There are bound to be teething problems, so we cannot switch on hundreds of thousands of lab tests overnight. But we hope that soon these hub laboratories will be operating round the clock, allowing us to significantly scale up our testing.’
The decision has won the support of the BMA and RCGP, which both spent weeks campaigning for it.
Dr Jonathan Leach, joint honorary secretary of the RCGP, said: ‘GPs and their teams are committed to delivering care to patients in these challenging circumstances, but they must be well enough to do so, and this new measure will help make that possible.
‘We have heard from numerous GPs and members of the wider practice team who were self-isolating due to Covid-19 but wanted to be tested because they felt well enough to work.
‘At a time when we need all hands-on deck, we hope that this roll-out of testing frontline NHS staff will increase the capacity of general practice and the wider NHS during the pandemic so that patients can continue to receive the care they need.’
BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul ageed that the announcement is ‘long overdue’.
He said: ‘For every healthy member of staff at home self-isolating needlessly when they do not have the virus, the NHS is short of someone who could be providing vital care to patients on the frontline.
‘This is incredibly frustrating for doctors and their colleagues, who want to be working and supporting their colleagues and patients – but cannot due to lack of testing so far.
‘While the Government has announced this this will commence with certain categories of staff, it is crucial that these tests are rolled out to all healthcare workers and their households urgently – so that if they do test negative, they can support the health service at a time when they are needed most.’
And, writing in the Daily Mail over the weekend, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt added: ‘We should aim to be the first country able to test all its health and care frontline staff every week so they can be confident they are not infecting their own patients.
‘We owe our brilliant and brave frontline professionals no less.’
The World Health Organisation has previously championed a ‘test, test, test’ approach, whilst GPs have long expressed frustration with high-profile figures such as the Prime Minister, health secretary and Prince Charles testing positive for the virus when they were largely denied tests.
So far, 127,737 people in the UK have been tested, leading to 19,522 diagnoses.