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Just two thousand front-line NHS England staff have been tested for coronavirus, Downing Street has revealed.
No.10 said all hospital trusts had been urged to use spare testing capacity to step up plans to get doctors, nurses, midwives and others back to work after self-isolating at home.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said 900 NHS staff were tested over the weekend as part of a pilot scheme and that as of Wednesday the total stood at “over 2,000”. “Staff will be getting results fed back to them over the next few days,” he said.
Some NHS trusts are reporting nearly a quarter of staff off having to stay at home with symptoms of the disease, or with family members who display symptoms.
The health service has 1.1m full-time equivalent staff and there are fears that large numbers are waiting for tests.
But the spokesperson also confirmed thousands of tests were not being carried out every day, despite efforts to increase their number.
“Currently testing capacity stands at 12,750 [per day],” he said. “On Monday, 8,630 tests were carried out.
“A clear instruction has been sent to all NHS trusts that where capacity is available it should be used on testing front line staff.
“If there is capacity available it should be going on testing NHS staff. The issue is staff self-isolating. We want more testing to be carried out. It’s our intention to to significantly increase the numbers of tests.”
The government has come under intense pressure to ramp up testing for the virus for patients and staff.
Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock promised that the daily testing figure would rise to 25,000 in mid-April.
Hancock has now moved to lift the 15% cap on the number of staff who can be tested each day. Until today, 85% of tests had to take place on patients, but NHS England said it was removing the 15% cap for staff “immediately”.
Despite the World Health Organization’s advice for countries to “test, test, test”, the UK is lagging behind other countries such as Germany, which is testing 70,000 people daily.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove admitted yesterday that a global shortage of reagents needed for the tests was restricting Britain’s capacity.
No.10 dismissed reports that chemicals firms had no problems with supply, pointing out that the UK In-Vitro Diagnostics Industry had said there was huge global demand.
“They say we working at pace in order to be able to distribute these reagents but none of this can be achieved overnight,” the spokesman said.
But No.10 sidestepped questions as to when the government had ordered the reagents needed for the tests, saying “we have been working throughout” to increase the number of tests carried out.
It is understood that officials advise extreme caution around an early sample by NHS Providers that suggested only 15% of those staff self-isolating at home actually had the virus.
The brand new Nightingale Hospital London, with an expected bed capacity of 4,000 beds, is due to open in East London in the Excel conference centre later this week, Downing Street confirmed.