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The NHS risks becoming a “Covid-only” service this winter without routine testing for staff, an influential committee of MPs has warned.
It said there was a “compelling case” for workers in the NHS to be tested for Covid-19 every week, whether they have symptoms of not.
“Weekly testing of NHS staff has been repeatedly promised in hotspot areas – but is still not being delivered”
Currently, testing for NHS staff is prioritised for those who display symptoms and those working in areas with high numbers of Covid-19 cases.
The recommendations were made in a report published today by the Health and Social Care Select Committee, titled Delivering core NHS and care services during the pandemic and beyond, following an inquiry launched in April.
The document catalogued the challenges caused by the pandemic on the provision of other essential services and called for urgent action to tackle the patient backlog that had built up since the first peak.
Following its inquiry, which considered evidence from royal colleges, health think tanks, patients and NHS senior leaders and representatives, the committee said there was a “compelling” case for routine testing of all NHS staff.
There was a “significant risk” that without such testing there would be “higher levels” of healthcare-associated infections in a second spike, scientists had told the committee.
Routine staff testing would also “help to reassure the public that the NHS services are safe to use”, the report added.
It highlighted previous comments made by Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, stating that if there was a “surge” of Covd-19 cases in the winter he would likely advise routine testing of NHS staff to be rolled out.
However, the MPs claimed that routine testing of asymptomatic staff “appears not to have been introduced where the virus is already surging in the North East and the North West”.
“We conclude that the case for routine testing of all NHS staff in all parts of the country…is compelling and should be introduced as quickly as capacity allows and before the winter-flu season begins,” the report stated.
The committee urged the government and NHS England and NHS Improvement to expand capacity for testing all NHS staff “rapidly” and that it would expect to receive an update on progress by the end of October at the latest.
Health and Social Care Committee chair Jeremy Hunt said the pandemic had “massively impacted normal NHS services, something that could have been mitigated with earlier infection-control measures in hospitals and clearer communication to patients whose care was disrupted”.
“Weekly testing of NHS staff has been repeatedly promised in hotspot areas – but is still not being delivered,” he said.
“Failure to do so creates a real risk that the NHS will be forced to retreat into being a largely Covid-only service during a second spike.”
“Equally, as this report makes clear, the lack of testing is a key barrier to safe and effective care”
He flagged the “severe disruption” to services, especially cancer, seen so far in the pandemic and warned of the potential of “tens of thousands” of avoidable deaths within a year.
“If we’re to avoid this going forward it is time to give as much priority to avoiding harm and death caused by the interruption of normal NHS services and introduce mass testing for all NHS staff,” added Mr Hunt.
Meanwhile, Unison head of health Sara Gorton backed the report’s call for routine staff testing.
“Health workers must be tested once a week if the virus is to be stopped in its tracks,” she said.
“The government’s failure to ensure regular testing, and speedy results, risks a repeat of the spring when Covid was allowed to spread freely in hospitals and care homes.”
Ms Gorton added that rectifying this “testing mess” before the winter would “help reassure staff and patients that their safety is paramount”.
Susan Masters, director of nursing, policy and public affairs at the Royal College of Nursing, said the report “could not come at a more crucial moment” with Covid-19 cases and related admissions rising.
“We hear from nurses at the forefront of health and care services that, even though much has improved, they are concerned about the level of protection they’ll have this winter,” she added.
“Equally, as this report makes clear, the lack of testing is a key barrier to safe and effective care.
“Unless there is a rapid expansion of testing, health and care staff in all settings must be prioritised with easy-to-access tests.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said its “decisive and extensive” action had prevented the NHS becoming overwhelmed in the pandemic and stressed that diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer had “remained a priority throughout”.
On testing, they added: “NHS staff with symptoms can access testing as a priority and staff in outbreak areas can access tests if they are asymptomatic.”
The government was continuing to “expand testing availability as our capacity continues to expand to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October”, they said.
NHS England and NHS Improvement has been approached for comment.