Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said on 2 April that the government plans to increase the number of COVID-19 tests that can be carried out daily in England from the current figure of around 10,000 to 100,000 by the end of April.
This tenfold increase would take England's daily testing capacity close to the total number of tests carried out in the entire month of March.
But GP leaders have warned that despite some testing capacity now being used for frontline staff, access remains limited.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline this week that general practice faced 'big issues with staffing', with large numbers of doctors and other practice staff forced to self-isolate for extended periods or being shielded because they are in an at-risk category.
Asked whether a Royal College of Physicians estimate that one in four doctors are self isolating was an accurate estimate for GPs, Dr Vautrey said the figure was 'of that order' - adding that 'many could be back at work' if priority testing for frontline doctors was available.
He said: 'Large number of workforce and administrative staff are self-isolating at home. Many are no longer able to work. Many could be back at work if testing was available, but at the moment it is really very limited. That is why we need testing in place as soon as possible.'
GPs in pockets of the country - including the Morecambe Bay area and North Hampshire - have been able to access testing in recent weeks, improving practice resilience by allowing staff to return to work if they test negative.
The government has also opened a limited amount of testing capacity in other areas for frontline staff in recent days. One GP told GPonline that across eight CCGs in his part of London, a block of 120 tests had been made available for frontline staff at a drive-through testing facility - but that this capacity was quickly consumed and fell short of demand.
Mr Hancock has promised that 'once widespread testing is available, we will prioritise repeated testing of critical key workers, to keep them safe and make sure that they do not spread the virus'.
Under a 'five-pillar plan', the government has said it will:
- Scale up swab testing in PHE labs and NHS hospitals for those with a medical need and the most critical workers to 25,000 a day by mid to late April.
- Deliver increased commercial swab testing for critical key workers in the NHS, before then expanding to key workers in other sectors.
- Develop blood testing to help know if people have the right antibodies and so have high levels of immunity to coronavirus.
- Conduct surveillance testing to learn more about the spread of the disease and help develop new tests and treatments.
- Create a new 'national effort' for testing, to build a mass-testing capacity at a completely new scale.
Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for clarity on the proportion of the planned 100,000 tests per day that will be blood tests to check for previous infection, and how many will be tests for current infection.