The rollout of testing for clinical staff has begun in parts of the UK - with Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething making clear that healthcare workers in 'frontline patient-facing care' are among those now being prioritised for tests.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that the government is working to 'massively scale up tests so that we hit 25,000 per day' - and officials have confirmed testing will be expanded soon from the current focus on patients admitted to hospital to include healthcare staff.
Frontline staff in North Hampshire are set to have access to testing from 19 March - but the BMA has warned that this must be expanded across the UK 'without delay'.
Well done but needs to be UK wide reality as well as testing symptomatic family members of healthcare workers so that if negative HCWs don’t have to be off work 14 days unnecessarily https://t.co/fs3NDxiZFj— Chaand Nagpaul (@CNagpaul) March 18, 2020
GP practices have reported working with severely depleted workforce because doctors and other practice staff have been forced to self-isolate when they or other members of their household display potential coronavirus symptoms.
Staff with underlying health conditions have also been forced to keep away from practices to avoid putting themselves at risk.
Surrey GP Dr Dave Triska said: 'We had two GPs in yesterday. Four of our doctors are currently at home because of either long-term health conditions or are self-isolating after the guidance the other day.' Despite this, he said the practice had 'stood up and carried on'.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'We understand that priority testing is taking place in some areas for frontline NHS staff, however, it’s clear that this is not yet widespread.
'In order for the NHS to work as effectively as possible during this time, it’s essential that all healthcare professionals and their families are tested for the virus not only for their protection, but most importantly, their patients.'
BMA leaders have also hit out over the failure to supply adequate stocks of PPE to GP practices and hospitals - warning that employers have 'a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to protect staff and to make sure that enough reliable masks, gowns, goggles and gloves are available'.
Healthcare staff have reported going to DIY stores to purchase masks because none are available where they work - or even asking for supplies at building sites. The BMA says doctors in primary and secondary care have reported feeling they are putting themselves at risk treating patients because of a lack of PPE - and have called for all staff to have the chance to test-fit masks before using them.
BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'There are limits to the risks to which doctors, indeed all healthcare workers, can reasonably be expected to expose themselves to.
'Frontline staff must have the proper personal protective equipment if they are treating patients with COVID-19 or suspected to have COVID-19. We are hearing of staff trying to buy masks from DIY stores in desperation because they are not being provided with it by their employers. This is totally unacceptable.
'The Government must find a reliable way to substantially increase the production and distribution of PPE. If any healthcare worker, treating someone with Covid-19 was to become ill, or worse, due to a lack of PPE, the consequences will be dire and the impact on patient care catastrophic.
As well as the correct PPE, its imperative that healthcare workers who are self-isolating, or suspect they may have the virus, are tested without further delay.
'The NHS will struggle even more if increasing numbers of staff are forced to remain at home for up to two weeks, not knowing whether they have the virus and therefore not able to care for patients.'
Deliveries of PPE to GP practices across England began last week, but doctors have criticised the quality and quantity of supplies. The government was forced this week to reassure doctors that PPE distributed to them was not out of date and remained safe to use after concerns raised by GPs.