GPs and other frontline NHS staff will be able to find out if they have had coronavirus, health secretary Matt Hancock has said.
The Government has ordered 3.5 million antibody tests for Covid-19 which ‘will allow people to see whether they have had the virus and are immune to it and can go back to work’, he said during yesterday’s daily Government briefing.
Mr Hancock said the antibody tests would be available ‘very soon’. But the precise timing of the arrival of the tests, which would tell people whether they had been infected with the virus at some point, is unclear.
He also announced that a new testing facility has opened in Milton Keynes as part of plans to rapidly increase the number of tests being done.
Speaking to MPs on the science and technology select committee, Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England said an antibody test would be ready in days rather than weeks.
She said that work was being done in Oxford this week on the validity of the tests before being rolled out to the public online or through pharmacies.
Initially there would likely be prioritisation of who could get the tests, she added.
It follows a previous announcement by the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty on the 16 March that the government was scaling up testing for healthcare workers.
So far 90,436 people in the UK had been tested for coronavirus – at a current rate of between 5,000 and 6,000 a day – and the tests are only being done routinely in people in hospital.
GPs have shared frustations about being unable to access Covid-19 testing when they have symptoms with increasing numbers of primary care staff off self-isolating for up to two weeks.
More than 1,200 GPs signed a letter, published in The Times, calling for symptomatic NHS staff working in primary care to be tested for coronavirus.
Tuesday (24 March) saw a further 87 deaths from coronavirus bringing the total to 422.
Mr Hancock also announced that the ExCeL centre in London will be turned into a makeshift emergency hospital from next week initially taking 500 patients but moving to a capacity of 4,000 by early April.
In response to testing plans, Labour’s shadow health secretary 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.’
Note: This article was updated at 14.35 on 25 March to reflect new information from the science and technology select committee.