People with mild potential coronavirus symptoms - a continuous cough or fever - have been told to self-isolate for seven days, with 14-day isolation for households in which someone is ill. Testing capacity, however, is being focused on patients admitted to hospital - with those self-isolating at home not tested.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on 16 March, CMO Professor Chris Whitty said NHS testing capacity was being 'scaled up every week' - and that there was a 'very strong incentive' to build capacity to the point where all frontline staff could be tested quickly.
He said: 'The next level out once we have the capacity to do this - which we are going for very fast - is that healthcare and other critical workers can be tested early in their illness. If they have the symptoms but not coronavirus they will be able to go back to work - if they have got it you know they are not going to get it again, so a positive or a negative are useful for the service.'
Doctors' leaders have warned that priority access to tests for frontline NHS staff - including GPs - is vital to avoid exacerbating workforce shortages by forcing many doctors to stay off work, potentially unnecessarily.
BMA deputy chair Dr David Wrigley said: 'The BMA has requested priority COVID-19 testing for doctors as a matter of urgency. With even those with minor symptoms having to self-isolate for at least a week, it is vital that health workers are prioritised for testing, so that any who test negative can, if they feel well enough, safely return to work.
'Otherwise, we face a potential situation where a significant number of doctors are self-isolating – some needlessly – instead of treating patients and supporting their colleagues on the frontline.
'With priority testing, doctors can be free to continue to treat patients safe in the knowledge that they are not at risk of passing an infection on to either colleagues and patients, while those who do need to self-isolate can do so in a timely fashion and focus on recovering properly.'
Doctors Association UK (DAUK) GP lead Dr Yaso Browne told GPonline that maintaining NHS capacity was key to successfully delaying the spread of coronavirus.
'On 12 March when the government decided within 24 hours to change plans from doing up to 10,000 tests a day to identify people with COVID-19 symptoms in hospitals, the public and healthcare workers have been left with some serious questions,' she said.
'It is apparent that those that may be critical are trying to be identified but healthcare professionals would like to know that they are coming in to work not infecting others and also that they can get back to work as soon as possible.
'We support the government’s efforts to find on-the-spot and home testing and would also call for further transparency on whether it is achievable, in terms of supply and capacity, to test all NHS staff that are high risk or symptomatic.'
DAUK co-founder Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden welcomed the announcement that testing would soon be extended to frontline staff. 'Doctors have been calling for testing of frontline NHS staff, not because it is of any benefit to them, but because a negative test will allow those needing to self-isolate to return to work quicker to serve patients. This is a real testament to our incredible NHS which this country is so lucky to have.'
Warnings over the need for rapid testing for frontline staff came as the government confirmed on 16 March that the number of confirmed UK cases had risen to 1,543, with 53 deaths.
The NHS has moved into the ‘delay’ phase of its response to coronavirus.