NHS staff who are isolating at home because somebody in their house is ill are to be tested for Covid-19 first in the hope they can return to work.
Amanda Pritchard, NHS England’s chief operating officer, and Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, have written to NHS trusts to say testing capacity is “now increasing” and setting out the priorities for testing staff.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has said roll-out of testing will begin this week after staff were sampled on Saturday and Sunday.
The move comes amid confusion about the scale of testing after a Cabinet minister claimed the 10,000-a-day target set by the Government had been met, while Public Health England said the latest figure was 9,114.
The latest letter states that key NHS staff and the person in their home who is ill are first in line for testing.
It says hospitals should “start this week with those working in critical care, emergency departments and ambulance services, and any other high priority groups you determine locally.
“We will then sequentially expand to other NHS staff groups as more tests are made available to the NHS, and ultimately into other essential public services including social care.
NHS organisations will use these tests to allow key staff to return to work if the index case in their home is Covid-19 freeNHS England letter
“In the first instance, we ask that you identify those staff in these initial priority groups (including critical care, emergency departments and ambulance services) who are unable to work because of the requirement for 14-day self-isolation.
“These are staff living in a household where another individual may have Covid-19.
“Trust chief executives tell us that, while this is the right action for staff members to have taken, it is this group that is causing the greatest degree of absenteeism, potentially for no underlying clinical reason on the part of the staff member herself/himself.
“NHS organisations will use these tests to allow key staff to return to work if the index case in their home is Covid-19 free.”
Trusts are told to identify staff or household members who need to be tested, “with a particular focus on testing the suspected coronavirus sufferer in a quarantined household which is shared with a key NHS staff member”.
Trusts should initially allocate up to 15% of daily testing capacity for this purpose, and tests should be carried out as soon after symptoms develop as possible “to maximise the accuracy of the result”.
A share of the 15% should also be made available for ambulance trusts and any other high priority groups determined locally, the letter says.
Downing Street said more than 900 frontline NHS staff were tested over the weekend.
But there was confusion about the scale of the public testing programme.
Care Minister Helen Whately told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have achieved the capacity to have 10,000 people a day tested.
“The actual number that was tested (on Sunday) was, I think, around 7,000.
“But within the next three weeks we expect to get to 25,000 tests a day.”
The discrepancy is partly explained by the need for some patients to be tested more than once.
Claims by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock over the weekend that the 10,000 daily goal had been met were based on PHE’s information on testing capacity, Number 10 said.
Asked why the UK was now working on a target of 25,000 daily tests while Germany was working on around 70,000 a day, the spokesman said there were difficulties in “getting all the equipment they need to conduct these tests at a time when everybody in the world wants them”.
The latest figures show the UK has the capacity to conduct 10,949 tests a day but carried out 9,114 as of 9am on Saturday.
“If there is spare capacity in the NHS then they should be using it for staff testing,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said.