Medical staff in hospitals are to be tested for Covid-19 on a weekly basis, even if they are asymptomatic, in a bid to cut transmissions between healthcare workers.
Health secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that the government had piloted the testing of hospital staff who were not exhibiting symptoms of the virus in 16 NHS trusts, and the scheme had so far been successful.
It was expecting to roll out weekly tests to all NHS hospitals as part of an extension to the test-and-trace programme currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight. Hancock said care workers were also included in plans for weekly testing.
Researchers at Imperial College have estimated that weekly screening of healthcare workers and other at-risk groups, whether showing symptoms of the virus or not, could reduce transmissions between healthcare workers by as much as a third, on top of reductions achieved by self-isolation.
Study author Professor Nicholas Grassly said: “There has been substantial pressure on the UK government and others to ‘test, test, test’ in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We find that testing is most useful when targeted at high-risk groups such as healthcare and care home staff, where regular screening in addition to testing of symptomatic individuals may prevent an additional 25-33% of their contribution to transmission in hospital and the community.
“Testing is also critical to monitoring the epidemic and the effectiveness of lockdown, but its role in the prevention of virus transmission in the community is likely to be limited.”
Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan, who is an A&E doctor, pressed Hancock on the slow introduction of widespread testing of health workers.
She said: “Frontline workers like me have had to watch families break into pieces as we deliver the very worst of news to them, that the ones they love most in this world have died.
“The testing strategy has been non-existent. Community testing was scrapped, mass testing was slow to roll out, and testing figures are now being manipulated.”
Hancock denied that testing figures had been manipulated. The government once again failed to hit its target of carrying out 100,000 tests per day on Tuesday.
As the number of Covid-19 related deaths in the UK reached the highest in Europe, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said it would have been “beneficial” for testing capacity to have been increased earlier.
He said yesterday: “I think that probably we, in the early phases, and I’ve said this before, I think if we’d managed to ramp testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial.”
However, Vallance said it was “completely wrong” to think of testing as the answer to preventing the spread of the virus.
“It’s just part of the system that you need to get right. The entire system needs to work properly,” he said.
Responding to the news that testing of hospital staff would be increased and that the government aims to conduct 200,000 tests per day by the end of the month, Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the government’s promises were to be applauded.
“However, this once again shines a spotlight on the inalienable truth that capacity and access are not the same thing, and having the ability to provide more tests will be meaningless if they are not distributed,” he said.
“These promises must be accompanied by clear plans to make sure people can access testing, and that they are fully aware of how to do so, especially if they work on the front line. We have said for some time that appropriate testing is absolutely vital, not only in hospitals but in care homes and other high-risk settings, so that those who are not ill can be reassured that they are safe to work.
“We now need clarity on how many tests will be needed to meet both the promise of weekly testing for hospital staff and the 200,000 target, as well as on when the new weekly programme will be extended to care home staff, who are also at extreme risk and who provide incredibly important care to some of the most vulnerable people.”