NHS to roll out testing for frontline staff and care workers

The National Health Service will roll out coronavirus testing for frontline staff from next week, as the government steps up efforts to ensure the healthcare system can cope with the strain.

Speaking from Downing Street on Friday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the boost to testing capacity was the result of an initiative that has brought together businesses, universities and scientific institutions.

He said the extra testing capacity would initially be directed at key NHS staff and care workers who were self-isolating. This would allow those who tested negative for the virus to return to work and to ease the strain on colleagues as the number of infection and deaths in the UK continued to grow.

The top government medical and scientific advisers have warned that the NHS will be stretched to its limits as the pandemic reaches its peak, which is expected in the next two to three weeks. 

The UK registered its biggest daily rise in deaths since the outbreak with the number of fatalities from coronavirus jumping to 759 as of 5pm on Thursday, a rise of 181 on the previous day. 

Businesses that are part of the initiative include Thermo Fisher Scientific and Randox, which alongside The Wellcome Trust and “dozens” of universities are providing equipment. Boots has offered clinical technicians, while Amazon and Royal Mail are assisting with logistics, according to the Department of Health.

Health secretary Matt Hancock, who is in self-isolation after testing positive for the virus, said he wanted to ensure that “any frontline NHS or care worker who has symptoms of coronavirus or who has a family member with symptoms can be tested quickly and reliably”.

The initiative will help bolster the output of three new testing laboratories. The first is already undergoing validation, with results due on Saturday.

If approval is given, the lab will begin operations over the weekend initially to process 800 samples. The government hopes the output of that lab, as well as two others that are being set up, will increase each week. As capacity increases, the government said it would extend the testing to other frontline workers beyond the NHS.

Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, warned that there could be teething issues with the new testing facilities, but said the NHS hoped to operate the labs around the clock to “significantly scale up our testing”.

She added: “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.”

The Johnson government has come under intense pressure from critics for failing to carry out a wider testing programme. Ministers have promised to increase the UK’s testing capacity to 25,000 samples per day by mid-April, and pledged an additional 100,000 per day for frontline NHS workers by an as yet unspecified date.

So far the promised ramp-up in testing has been slow — reaching between 5,500 and 6,500 daily tests this week, not much higher than last week.

Under pressure to increase the number of samples that can be processed, Public Health England has turned to universities, urging them to provide scientists and equipment for use in PHE and NHS labs. Junior and retired doctors have also been brought in to assist with the wider Covid-19 effort.

The World Health Organisation has continuously reinforced its message that the key to defeating the pandemic was to “test, test, test”.

Meanwhile Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, confirmed that two additional field hospitals would be constructed at the Manchester Central conference centre and the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. The two temporary facilities will provide thousands of extra beds. Sir Simon said 33,000 beds were now available in the NHS for coronavirus patients


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