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Tue 31 March 2020
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Mark Conrad reports on how, despite pressure on the Health Secretary Matt Hancock to routinely test NHS staff to suppress the Coronavirus, no plans are forthcoming.

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Health secretary Matt Hancock is under heavy pressure to test all frontline NHS and care staff amid growing concerns that health services will encounter major capacity issues if doctors, nurses and staff are forced to self-isolate during the COVID-19 crisis.

Senior doctors, clinicians, intensive care unit (ICU) staff and nurses are calling for immediate testing of all frontline personnel while they battle to “flatten the curve” and keep hospital admission numbers to a manageable figure across the country.

In response, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) today announced plans to “rapidly boost” COVID-19 testing “in coming weeks” – including plans to get NHS staff back to work quickly if they are forced to self-isolate.

But neither Whitehall nor NHS England has yet committed to ensuring that frontline staff are prioritised. Instead, the action plan outlined by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) today reveals an ambition to test up to 25,000 “hospital patients” daily within weeks. That would be a significant improvement on current practices, but may not be enough to appease worried staff bodies.

Neither Whitehall nor NHS England has yet committed to ensuring that frontline staff are prioritised

Incredibly, UK frontline health staff – doctors, nurses, managers and cleaning teams – are not subject to routine Coronavirus testing, despite the practice being widespread across some countries battling COVID-19. The UK is currently testing just 5,000 people, usually NHS patients, each day.

Privately, senior medical and nursing figures have told Byline Times that they are amazed that the Government has not yet insisted on either compulsory or upon-request testing for staff. They fear a two-fold effect.

Firstly, that staff may contract COVID-19 and quickly spread the virus to vulnerable hospitalised patients and other staff. Secondly, that staff who present with mild symptoms such as a cough will now be forced to self-isolate for up to 14 days when they may not have the virus – creating major capacity issues across some hospitals and care facilities.

One source, a senior doctor at a significant NHS trust who asked not to be identified, said: “There will be vital NHS staff now stuck at home with symptoms which may or may not be COVID-19, simply because they have not been tested. We are losing staff to this problem already and the number of COVID-19 related admissions has not peaked yet.

“Doctors, nurses and other staff want to be treating patients if it is safe to do so. So we need to know whether we are safe to treat patients.”

A senior NHS nurse, who also asked to remain anonymous, told Byline Times that staff currently feel that they are being well-informed about the virus and empowered to battle the upsurge in hospital admissions. But, the source added bluntly: “Except, we want to be tested.”

A DHSC statement issued today outlined the department’s plan to increase the UK’s COVID-19 testing capacity.

“With a focus on ensuring the highest priority cases are tested first, officials are working to rapidly increase the number of tests that can be conducted by Public Health England and the NHS in laboratories, with the expected surge in capacity ready within just four weeks,” it said.

At a meeting with health industry bosses last night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson also urged firms to help develop a test to determine whether an individual has developed immunity to the virus – which could help some staff return to work sooner. At the meeting – attended by firms such as Roche, ThermoFisher, Boots and Amazon – politicians also urged the industry to develop a “home” swab test for members of the public who self-isolate.

Matt Hancock said: “Public safety is my top priority, and radically ramping up testing for Coronavirus is a key part of our plan to protect lives. We are already among the best in the world for Coronavirus testing and today we are launching a national effort to increase our testing capability even further.

“Our aim is to protect life, protect the most vulnerable, and relieve pressure on our NHS – so it is right that we prioritise testing for those most at risk of severe illness. We will always do the right thing at the right time, based on the best scientific advice, and will do whatever it takes to protect life.”

But the DHSC would not be drawn on whether it will shortly prioritise NHS and care staff.

Meanwhile, Byline Times has seen sensitive internal NHS documents outlining plans to deal with the expected spike in COVID-19 admissions over the coming weeks.

The documents indicate that the NHS has worked closely with partners such as the DHSC and Public Health England to produce emergency protocols covering everything from the safe hospital admission of patients and how to manage isolation units and intensive care, through to how to handle blood, saliva and faeces samples and then safely dispose of waste.

The documents are impressive in scope and detail, and show that the NHS has prepared for a fierce battle with the Coronavirus to minimise deaths. But, they also act as a sharp reminder of the potential points of contact with, and exposure to, the virus across medical, nursing, paramedic, care, management and cleaning staff.

Byline Times will report on other critical issues raised in the documentation soon.


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