Government to roll out routine testing for GPs in COVID-19 hotspots

The government plans to roll out routine COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic NHS staff in areas where the virus is spreading fastest - and hopes to expand this to GPs, NHS England's medical director has said.

Professor Jonathan Van Tam (Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
Professor Jonathan Van Tam (Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

At a Downing Street briefing, NHS England medical director Professor Stephen Powis said the health service was 'now at a point where we will be able to more systematically test asymptomatic staff on a regular basis'.

On the advice of CMO Professor Chris Whitty, testing of asymptomatic staff - a move backed for some time by doctors' leaders - will go ahead first in areas of the country with high infection rates, Professor Powis confirmed.

He made clear that testing would be for all NHS staff in affected areas, 'not just the doctors and nurses', adding that: 'Yes, we want to extend this out of hospital into our primary care settings, such as general practice.'

GP appointments

Following criticism of NHS England over recent comments on GP practices offering access to face-to-face care, Professor Powis said that practices had delivered 123m appointments in the past seven months.

He urged patients to come forward and seek NHS care if they needed it: 'Please use NHS services if you need them - contact your GP if you are worried about cancer symptoms, an unusual lump or blood in your urine. Contact emergency services if you have chest pain. Contact 111 or your GP for advice.'

Deputy CMO Dr Jonathan Van Tam told the briefing that the UK had seen a 'marked pickup' in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

Nearly 14,400 new cases have been confirmed per day on average over the past week, official figures show, with cases rising fastest in north-west and north-east England.

COVID-19 infection

Professor Van Tam said cases were highest among younger people, but that this was translating into increasing rates among older patients - and that the worst-affected hospital in England, Liverpool University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, now had more than 250 COVID-19 patients in its ICU.

He warned: 'There is a lag between cases, hospital admissions and deaths rising. The hospital admissions we have now are related to numbers of cases about three weeks ago. Already, we have baked in additional hospital admissions and sadly additional deaths on infections that have already happened.'

Although the pandemic has 'picked up pace faster' in the north than the south of England, largely because cases never dropped as far through summer in the north, 'pretty much all areas in the UK are seeing an increase in infection rate', Professor Van Tam said. 'This is a nationwide phenomenon now.'

Alongside plans for routine staff testing, Professor Powis announced that the mothballed Nightingale hospitals set up in the first wave of the pandemic had been put on standby to reopen.

'We have asked the Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate to prepare for the next phase,' he said. The hospitals have been asked to 'mobilise over the next few weeks to be ready to accept patients if necessary' - with the additional capacity to be used according to local services' needs - potentially offering ventilation or rehabilitation services for patients with severe COVID-19 illness, or to maintain 'essential and diagnostic services for patients with conditions other than COVID-19'.

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