Han­cock says 3.5m new an­ti­body tests will help get NHS staff back to work

The Guardian - - News Coronaviru­s - Sarah Bose­ley Health edi­tor

The UK gov­ern­ment has bought 3.5m an­ti­body tests for coro­n­avirus, the health sec­re­tary said yes­ter­day, promis­ing that front­line doc­tors and nurses would be able in due course to find out whether they had been in­fected and were safe to go back to work.

Matt Han­cock’s state­ment dur­ing the daily gov­ern­ment brief­ing will be wel­comed by NHS staff. The ab­sence of any test­ing for doc­tors and nurses has deeply up­set many who work in the ser­vice, who note they risk in­fect­ing pa­tients and their fam­i­lies, and that they may need­lessly have to iso­late at home, un­able to care for those sick with Covid-19.

How­ever, as yet there is no time­frame for the ar­rival of the tests, which would not tell peo­ple whether they have Covid-19 but whether they have had it, and pa­tients in hospi­tal would take pri­or­ity over staff.

Han­cock said he un­der­stood why NHS staff in par­tic­u­lar and oth­ers in pub­lic ser­vice were so keen to see test­ing ramped up. The an­ti­body tests “will al­low peo­ple to see whether they have had the virus and are im­mune to it and can go back to work”, he said, point­ing out that he had been sitting in the House of Com­mons ear­lier with Na­dine Dor­ries, who had re­cov­ered from Covid-19 and was now im­mune.

There have been a few cases of peo­ple ap­par­ently test­ing pos­i­tive for the virus a sec­ond time, but there are sug­ges­tions that they may not be in­fec­tious.

“We are ramp­ing up,” said Han­cock, adding that the an­ti­body tests would be­come avail­able “very soon”. The Depart­ment of Health and So­cial Care was open­ing a fa­cil­ity in Mil­ton Keynes that day to process tests, he said.

The tests cur­rently in use can de­tect the pres­ence of the virus in a nose swab. At the mo­ment, about 8,000 a day are be­ing per­formed on the sick­est pa­tients in hospi­tal to help with de­ci­sions about their treat­ment. They are not of­fered to staff. The gov­ern­ment has promised to in­crease those to 25,000 a day.

The an­ti­body test is not to es­tab­lish whether some­body cur­rently has Covid-19 but whether they have re­cov­ered from it. An­ti­bod­ies to the virus in their blood will re­veal whether they have been in­fected – and it is as­sumed that, if so, they will be im­mune. That will en­able NHS staff to know that they can re­turn to work with­out in­fect­ing pa­tients.

Han­cock also had words of re­as­sur­ance for front­line health­care work­ers who have been call­ing for more and bet­ter per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment – es­pe­cially the masks rec­om­mended by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, called FFP3.

“Many, many peo­ple are ask­ing for more per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment,” he said. Han­cock said 7.5 mil­lion items, in­clud­ing the FFP3 masks, had been se­cured in the past 24 hours and there was now a hot­line for hos­pi­tals to call if they did not have sup­plies. “It is lit­er­ally a mil­i­tary ef­fort to get th­ese pieces of kit out to peo­ple,” he said.

Ear­lier, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of NHS Providers, which rep­re­sents hospi­tal trusts, voiced the con­cerns of NHS staff at the ab­sence of test­ing.

“Trust lead­ers tell us re­peat­edly that test­ing is a vi­tal con­cern on the NHS front­line. The NHS is rapidly scal­ing up test­ing ca­pac­ity from 1,500, with the aim of car­ry­ing out 25,000 tests a day,” said Chris Hopson.

“But the fo­cus, for now, is on test­ing pa­tients rather than NHS staff. So when those staff – or peo­ple they live with – have sus­pected coro­n­avirus symp­toms, they are rightly go­ing into iso­la­tion. That’s caus­ing dis­rup­tion and frus­tra­tion as the NHS work­force is de­pleted at this cru­cial time.

“The quicker test­ing ca­pac­ity is in­creased, the larger the num­ber of staff, as well as pa­tients, can be tested.

“The promised de­ploy­ment of a sim­ple an­ti­body test, which is now be­ing tri­alled, will also help, though this will in­evitably take time to con­sis­tently reach the NHS front­line.

“But for now it’s clear block test­ing large num­bers of the NHS’s 1.2 mil­lion staff is not fea­si­ble. So we need a proper open dis­cus­sion about who should be pri­ori­tised, and we need clar­ity about how quickly test­ing ca­pac­ity can grow.”

Labour’s health spokesman, Jonathan Ash­worth, said: “We have re­peat­edly called for the gov­ern­ment to ramp up test­ing over a num­ber of weeks. We need ur­gent clar­i­fi­ca­tion from min­is­ters about what their test­ing plan is and why ac­tion ap­pears to have been taken so late.”

▲ A Covid-19 test kit. An­ti­body tests iden­tify those who have had the virus

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