COVID-19 antibody tests to be offered to nurses in England

‘Game changer’ tests will also be available to patients and supplied to devolved nations

Image of a blood sample being taken from an arm

COVID-19 antibody testing is to be made available to nurses and other health and social care staff in England, the government has announced.

The national antibody testing programme, described by NHS Confederation as a potential ‘game changer’, is due to be rolled out across the country from next week. Patients and nursing and care home residents will also be offered the test at their clinician’s request.

Test will ‘help us understand how and to whom the virus has spread’

Commenting on the announcement, NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson said: ‘We don’t yet know whether antibodies mean you are immune, and if so for how long. We also need to know whether those with antibodies can still transmit the virus.

‘But this will make a real difference in understanding how and to whom the virus has spread and will help us to answer these pressing questions.’

COVID-19 antibody testing: how will it work?

How do the tests work?

Roche Diagnostics and Abbott Laboratories have each developed a test that involves taking a small blood sample and testing it for antibodies in a laboratory. This will indicate exposure to coronavirus.

Public Health England (PHE) has evaluated the tests and approved them as being safe and reliable for widespread use.

Can the tests identify people who have had COVID-19 even if they did not have symptoms?

Yes, the tests can identify people who have had COVID-19 even if they never had any indication they were infected.

If the test shows I've had COVID-19, am I now immune from it?

A positive test result for antibodies, whichever test is used, does not currently confirm that the person tested is immune to COVID-19, the Department of Health and Social Care says.

There is also no firm evidence that the presence of antibodies means someone cannot be re-infected with the virus or will not pass it on to someone else.

If someone tests positive for antibodies they still need to follow social distancing and appropriate use of personal protective equipment.

A Public Health England study called SIREN is already under way to establish whether antibodies indicate immunity to COVID-19. Some 10,000 healthcare staff are being tested to examine potential immunity to the virus.

How many tests are there?

Ten million tests secured so far will be rolled out in phases over the coming months, with England’s health and care staff, patients and nursing home residents first in line.

The government says it will also arrange supplies of tests for the devolved nations, which can decide how to use their allocations.

How do I get tested?

Health and social care staff will be asked by their employer if they want an antibody test.

For NHS staff in England, a network of regional chief executives will oversee this. The NHS will use existing phlebotomy services and is planning to set up more to ensure all staff can be tested.

For care staff, the testing programme will be launched in phases across regions in England. Social care staff will be tested using a separate phlebotomy service, which will be able to take blood at their place of work.

Is testing compulsory for NHS and social care staff?

All NHS and care staff in England will be offered a test, with patients and nursing home residents eligible at their clinician’s request. Tests will not be compulsory.

How often will tests be repeated?

The Department of Health and Social Care told Nursing Standard it will establish a requirement for further testing as the programme rolls out. 

Will the results remain private?

All results remain confidential, but anonymised data will be reported to PHE for monitoring purposes.

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