Matt Hancock told the House of Commons health and social care committee on Friday that over 50,000 NHS workers had already been tested for the coronavirus, but admitted that the number of NHS staff coming forward for testing had been ‘lower than anticipated'.
He revealed that over 8% of healthcare workers were currently ‘off work’. However, he was unable to provide a fresh update on the number of NHS staff fatalities - the last official figure was 27.
Increased testing capacity
Improved testing access will come as a relief to GP practices, with many reporting depleted staff numbers due to government self isolation guidance. Mr Hancock said they should contact their 'line manager' to request a test.
The BMA has confirmed that practices should contact their CCGs, who will book these appointments - adding that 'a number of sites' were now running tests for primary care workers.
Regional leads and NHS trusts received a letter from NHS England (NHSE) earlier this week which confirmed that all NHS staff with COVID-19 symptoms would be able to access testing. This had previously been prioritised for hospital patients and acute care workers.
The letter confirmed that family members of NHS staff living in the same household could also be tested - both adults and children. But the document stated that patients admitted to hospital would continue to be given priority.
Healthcare staff looking to be tested should be in 'the first three days of the onset of their COVID-19 symptoms at the time the swab is taken’, the letter said.
Returning to work
‘No testing should be undertaken after day five, unless it’s for a specific reason agreed on a case by case basis by local microbiologists’, NHSE added.
The document advised that members who test negative for COVID-19 could return to work if they ‘are well enough’ and should discuss this with their employing organisation.
If a family member with symptoms tests negative, clinicians can return to work without themselves being tested, ‘as long as they remain symptom free’, it added.
A recent BMA poll found that more than 40% of GPs said their practice workforce has been significantly reduced because of staff self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic - with most unable to access testing.
GPC chair at the BMA Dr Richard Vautrey welcomed the introduction of testing for primary care staff and their families. He said: 'It’s vital that all healthcare workers are able to access the testing they need, and we’re aware that a number of sites are now operating for primary care and care home staff.
'CCGs should be contacted to book appointments for these, and the CQC are also supporting access for those working in care home settings. It’s imperative, however, that promises to increase testing for frontline staff are delivered, not only in the community, but also for those working in other healthcare settings as matter of urgency.'
Staff testing rate
Despite the government’s effort to expand testing to all NHS staff, the health secretary said that numbers coming forward had been lower than expected.
‘So the good news is we’ve been able to expand testing and because we’re expanding the capacity to test, we are able to expand the number of tests that are done, not only on patients going into care homes, but also for NHS staff and members in their households’, Mr Hancock said.
‘But we’ve found within the NHS that the number of staff coming forward for testing is lower than was anticipated… therefore we extended it very quickly to social care and residents in social care’, he added.
Ministers have promised to deliver 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of the month but missed their previous target of providing 25,000 tests a day by mid-April - about 18,000 were carried out yesterday.
NHS England medical director for primary care Dr Nikki Kanani also provided an update on efforts to test primary care staff with COVID-19 symptoms in a webinar on Thursday evening.
‘We're now in a position where capacity has increased quite impressively. All regions have some sort of testing set-up in place, she said. ‘We're building on that rapidly, so you should be able to access testing very rapidly. There's a short prioritisation but broadly general practice staff and community pharmacy staff will be able to access that testing, recognising their key importance.’
Visit the government's 'geting tested' page here