In a House of Commons debate this week health and social care select committee chair Jeremy Hunt asked the government if it intended to introduce weekly testing for NHS staff. Mr Hunt argued this would help to reassure patients using health services.
Health secretary Matt Hancock was unable to confirm whether the government was planning to roll out routine testing for healthcare staff, but insisted he wanted to ‘deploy as much testing as possible’.
The RCGP has now backed the call from former health secretary Mr Hunt - arguing that weekly testing of GP teams would allow staff to return to work without having to self-isolate and boost GP capacity at a time when practice workload is surging.
But the BMA has argued any proposal for a particular interval of regular testing must be backed by evidence.
Swab testing has been available to symptomatic and asymptomatic GPs since mid-April, while antibody testing was rolled out to health professionals in May. However, staff are not tested frequently and must book their own tests through their employer.
Some GPs have also reported being unable to access swab tests, despite the government ramping up testing capacity in recent months. Surrey GP Dr Terri Lovis said she had been unable to secure a test for her son, who was showing COVID-19 symptoms.
@MattHancock @NikkiKF I'm a GP partner. Feverish child (again!). There are no tests..I keep retrying. Not even a postal test. I am now one of 5 clinicians @ practice off isolating also struggling to get tests.Lack of tests is affecting NHS workforce and patient safety.#testtowork— Dr Terri Lovis (@DrTerriLovis) September 4, 2020
Honorary secretary of the RCGP Dr Jonathan Leach said testing of frontline staff had played a crucial role in allowing GP staff to continue to deliver care during the pandemic.
He said: ‘Weekly testing of NHS staff on a voluntary basis seems sensible - we know that testing reduces doubt and anxiety for frontline healthcare professionals, as well as reassurance for patients who may be, understandably, worried about the current situation.
‘We’ve also heard from numerous GPs and members of the wider practice team that testing for frontline NHS staff has allowed staff to find out whether or not they have COVID and if not, return to work without having to self-isolate. Throughout the pandemic this has increased the capacity of general practice and the wider NHS ensuring patients can continue to receive the care they need.’
But Dr Leach warned regular weekly testing would have to be fully backed by the government to prove successful.
‘We would like to see detailed plans on how these tests would be carried out in practice and assurance from the government that there is capacity to fulfil this initiative with results being made available swiftly as this is the only way the weekly testing’s aim - to keep the patients and healthcare professionals safe without diminishing the NHS workforce - will be achieved,' he said.
The RCGP honorary chair added that ‘strong, unambiguous’ guidance from NHS England on how to protect the workforce would be needed alongside testing.
Labour called for weekly testing of NHS staff in June, arguing it would allow patients to continue to recieve care safely.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey, said: 'Making testing more widely available for NHS staff and GPs is very important, particularly as we are shifting back to delivering a higher level of non-covid related care.
'Any proposal for a particular interval of regular testing must be backed by evidence and it is crucial that the evidence base is developed as quickly as possible to understand how frequently staff should be tested and its effectiveness.
'Given what is known about the test’s accuracy and negative results, regular testing – while beneficial – is by no means a green light to go back to work and individuals must still be guided by their symptoms.'