NHS staff including critical care nurses, intensive care staff, ambulance workers and GPs will start getting tested for coronavirus from next week, the health service has announced.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said it was “urgently important” to test health service staff who are off sick or self-isolating to see if they can return to work.
It comes following criticism about the lack of coronavirus testing for NHS workers, which is forcing potentially healthy doctors and nurses to self isolate at home with symptoms when they could be working on the frontline. On the flip side, it could also mean asymptomatic staff infecting patients without realising.
Stevens told the daily Downing Street coronavirus press conference: “We think it is urgently important that we are able to test frontline staff who are off sick or otherwise isolating.
“That’s why the work that Public Health England has been leading is so important because it means we are going to be able to double by this time next week the number of tests compared to the number that we’ve been doing this week.
“So I can say that today we are announcing that we will be rolling out staff testing across the NHS beginning next week, starting with critical care nurses, other staff in intensive care emergency departments, ambulance services, GPs – and as the testing volumes continue to increase we want to expand that to a wider range of essential public service workers including social care services, as well as of course continuing with the patient testing which is so vital.”
Michael Gove said the government had brought together universities, businesses and research institutes in a “new alliance” to boost testing capacity for frontline workers.
The chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: “This will be antigen testing – testing whether people currently have the disease – so that our health and social care workers can have security in the knowledge that they are safe to return to work if their test is negative.
“These tests will be trialled for people on the frontline starting immediately, with hundreds to take place by the end of the weekend – dramatically scaling up next week.”
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Meanwhile, Stevens announced plans to open two new temporary hospitals to treat coronavirus patients in Manchester’s Central Convention Centre and Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre.
He also revealed that:
- 6,200 Covid-19 patients are being treated in English hospitals, and the number is “only bound to rise”;
- 18,000 doctors and nurses have returned to practice registers after “answering the calls to arms”;
- There are now 33,000 beds available to treat coronavirus patients in England;
- There are just under 3,000 empty and available hospital beds in London, and there would be additional beds next week at the new temporary NHS Nightingale hospital in the capital’s Excel centre.
Stevens defended his record on bed reductions and declining nurse numbers in the NHS, but admitted: “The NHS does need more staff and it does need more hospital beds. We’ve been saying that for some time and that’s what’s going to be happening.”
He went on: “But the reality is [...] over the last several weeks we’ve freed up the equivalent of 50 hospitals across England ready and waiting for coronavirus patients.
“Under normal circumstances you would not keep 50 hospitals fully staffed with nurses and doctors not actually looking after patients.”