Frontline NHS staff across the UK will be the first wave to be tested for COVID-19 under a new testing programme, the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) announced last week (March 27).
NHS staff are being offered free antigen tests, which determines “whether people currently have the disease”, thus helping healthcare workers to return to work if their test is negative, cabinet office minister Michael Gove said last week.
The programme is available to professionals working in community pharmacy in England, the government confirmed to PSNC. More details will be made available “when they are provided” to the negotiator, it said in an update yesterday (March 29).
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had already prioritised testing for healthcare workers, including pharmacy teams, before Mr Gove’s announcement last week.
Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething also announced the launch of an antibody blood test last week (March 28) for NHS frontline staff, including pharmacy workers, that will test if people had had the virus and “potentially” developed immunity.
Partnership with Boots
The government’s new coronavirus testing programme is the result of a partnership with Thermo Fisher Scientific, Amazon, Boots, Royal Mail, Randox, the Wellcome Trust and top UK universities, the DH said.
Boots is supporting the government by setting up drive-through testing stations, which will be “spread across the UK” but will not be in its branches, the multiple's UK managing director Sebastian James said.
The tests will not be sold over the counter and will not be available “for purchase online from any retailers”, the DH stressed.
Testing will initially only be for NHS workers “who are isolating themselves [because they are] unsure if they have COVID-19 or not”, Boots director Richard Bradley said in a video on the company’s website.
NHS staff will be invited by their employers to have the test, Mr Bradley added.
Trials for the tests began last week at Boots’ site in Nottingham and were conducted by volunteers from the business.
Three new hub laboratories are being set up to analyse the antigen tests, the DH said last week.
The first of these hubs was due to become operational over the past weekend, whereas the other two will be “opening soon”, it said. C+D has contacted the DH to clarify whether the first hub had opened as expected.
“The samples will be taken at special sites set up around the country, initially in coronavirus hotspots such as London,” the DH added.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the government hopes “that soon these hub laboratories will be operating round the clock, allowing us to significantly scale up our testing.”
Confusion over availability
Last week, PHE’s Professor Sharon Peacock said that around 3.5 million COVID-19 antibody test kits had been ordered and would be available for the public to buy from pharmacies within a matter of days.
However, chief medical officer Professor Chris Witty later clarified that the test will not be “suddenly available” to purchase from this week as they need to go through an evaluation process before they are made available to NHS staff first and to the wider public at a later stage.