No capacity yet to test all healthcare staff for coronavirus, MPs told

Top government adviser says ‘everyone is working hard’ to enable big increase in testing

Picture shows the government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance at a news conference after a COBRA meeting to discuss the government's response to the coronavirus.
The government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance Picture: PA Wire

Healthcare staff and other key workers will be tested for coronavirus, but 'there is no capacity' at present to do so, the government's chief scientific adviser told MPs.

Sir Patrick Vallance also said there needs to be a 'big increase' in testing for COVID-19.

So far more than 660,000 people have signed an online petition calling for NHS frontline staff to be tested as a priority.

Public Health England limited to about 4,000 tests a day

Sir Patrick was appearing before the Commons health and social care committee during a session on UK plans to cope with the virus.

Committee chair Jeremy Hunt said the World Health Organization (WHO) had called on all countries to do more testing, yet community screening stopped in the UK last Friday after the government decided to focus efforts on seriously ill hospitalised people.

Read our COVID-19 resources

Sir Patrick confirmed that the latest plan was to test key workers as soon as there was capacity to do so. 

He said Public Health England (PHE) could only currently carry out about 4,000 tests a day, which was 'clearly not enough going forward.'

'Self-isolation advice applies to all'

Sir Patrick said: 'We simply don't have same testing availability for the population now.

'There is a big effort to try and get that in place as quickly as possible. I am advising we need to ramp up testing for all the reasons mentioned.

'I think we need a big increase in testing, and that is what I am pushing for, and everyone is working hard to make that happen.'

Sir Patrick said that PHE, the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS were looking at different types of tests that could be rolled out.

Meanwhile, England's chief nurse has confirmed that updated government guidance on self-isolation also applies to nurses and NHS staff.

Responding to a question on Twitter about the new guidance, chief nursing officer for England Ruth May said: 'We must protect our NHS people in the same way as our public, therefore the self-isolation advice from the chief medical officer for England applies to all.'

The NHS will pay for staff to stay in a hotel if they have family member who may be infected with COVID-19 but wish to continue working, said NHS England and NHS Improvement chief operating officerAmanda Pritchard.

'What we would want to do is say to people if a family member has been exposed, then absolutely if you wish to continue working, as long as you're not going home to that person, then if we can offer you accommodation that allows you to continue to work so that you are separated from that family member then we would wish to be able to do so,' she told the Commons health and social care committee.

'Clearly, in that circumstance, if somebody then became symptomatic, we would expect them to – as now – immediately remove themselves from a work environment and do all of the things that we have issued as guidance to anyone who finds themselves in that situation.'

A letter sent by NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens and Ms Pritchard to NHS organisations in England on Tuesday said employers should make adjustments for staff members deemed to be at increased risk according to Public Health England guidance, including pregnant women, such as working remotely or moving to an area with lower risk. 

Key messages around self-isolation

If you live alone and you have COVID-19 symptoms, however mild, stay at home for seven days from when your symptoms start.

If you live with others and you or one of them have symptoms of coronavirus, all household members must stay at home for 14 days. The 14-day period starts from the day when the first person in the house becomes ill.

For anyone in the household who starts displaying symptoms, they need to stay at home for seven days from when the symptoms appear, regardless of what day they are on in the original 14-day isolation period. 

If you can, move any vulnerable individuals (such as older people and those with underlying health conditions) out of your home, to stay with friends or family for the duration of the home isolation period. If this is not possible, try to stay away from them as much as possible.

In other news