Speaking at a coronavirus briefing on 21 May, health secretary Matt Hancock revealed plans for a national antibody testing programme after the government secured a deal for 10m tests.
Tests will be prioritised for NHS and care staff, and clinicians will be able to request them for patients both in hospital and in social care settings.
Antibody testing will confirm whether people have previously had the virus, while swab testing carried out to date as part of the UK response to the pandemic confirms current infection.
Mr Hancock said antibody testing would be rolled out 'in a phased way' from next week. He added: 'This is an important milestone and it represents further progress in our national testing programme. Knowing you have these antibodies will help us to understand in the future if you are at lower risk of catching coronavirus, dying from coronavirus and of transmitting coronavirus.’
The health secretary also revealed that three further tests were being assessed.
Healthcare staff will be asked by their employer if they want to have an antibody test, with NHS England setting up a network of regional CEOs to oversee the work. Patients who are already having blood taken as part of other tests will be asked whether they would like an antibody test.
As part of the Public Health England’s (PHE) SIREN study, which will investigate whether antibodies indicate immunity to covid-19, 10,000 healthcare workers will be studied for at least a year.
Data will be collected on their history of infection and any new symptoms they present and individuals will have nose and throat swabs and blood samples taken regularly.
SIREN study lead Dr Susan Hopkins, said: ‘ The results of this PHE study will be an important piece of the puzzle. We know people who have had COVID-19 produce antibodies in response but what we don’t know is whether this means they have immunity against future infection and how long that protection may last. Improving our understanding will be critical to future decisions about how best to control the spread of coronavirus.’
Earlier this month RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall called on the government to shift away from 'arbitrary numbers and targets', and focus on wider access to testing for health professionals and the public. He also said it was essential that GPs had access to testing to protect patients in care homes.