Covid-19: Calls to give NHS staff priority access to lateral flow tests
NHS workers must be given priority for accessing lateral flow Covid-19 tests, professional health bodies say.
The British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing said health staff should come first for the rapid tests to ease staffing issues.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said ministers expect they will need to “constrain” supply for two weeks to “manage” surging demand.
However, he told MPs tests would triple to 300 million a month early next year.
It came as some NHS staff said they cannot get hold of any as they are having to use the same system as the public.
One cancer care worker from London explained she missed several days of work after being unable to access rapid tests via online ordering or pharmacy collection routes – even after identifying as a key worker.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said: “This is one of the key reasons why there are absences on the front line.
“NHS workers are under enough pressure as it is without the additional
worry of obtaining tests.”
“I used to pick up two boxes of 40 tests from work, but now I have to access tests in the same queue as the general public.”
Another NHS worker, based in Cambridgeshire, also confirmed to the BBC they had been unable to get hold of rapid tests through their hospital ahead of the Christmas period.
- Are you an NHS worker affected by the unavailability of Covid tests? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
In a letter to MPs, the health secretary confirmed supplies of rapid tests would be tripled in January and February from 100 million to 300 million a month.
However, Mr Javid added the government expected to “need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day”, with new supplies released regularly over the course of each day.
Current government guidance for NHS workers in England states those who are a contact of a Covid-19 case must test negative via a PCR test and take lateral flow tests for 10 days after the contact – with tests taken before their shift on days they are due to work.
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The Department for Health and Social Care said the NHS has “additional stock of lateral flow tests” and stressed people who “live or work in vulnerable settings have access to dedicated testing order routes”.
A government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have prioritised the most vulnerable when it comes to vaccines, boosters, testing and other infection control measures such as PPE.”
Issues with accessing tests have been reported in recent weeks, with intermittent online availability of lateral flow and PCR test slots, as well as many pharmacies lacking supplies of the rapid tests.
On Wednesday, the UKHSA said people should keep checking online. It added that eight million lateral flow tests will be made available to pharmacies by New Year’s Eve – Friday.
In July, NHS England guidance was released informing staff they would be ordering the tests from the UK government website, which is also used by the general public.
Dr David Wrigley, the British Medical Association’s deputy council chair, said staff absences in the NHS are having a “detrimental and extremely worrying effect on patient care due to cancelled appointments and longer waiting times”.
He added that staff must be able to regularly take Covid tests and so supplies of lateral flow tests for key workers should be prioritised.
General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, echoed this call, arguing it was vital staff have access to tests to protect themselves and their patients.
She said the numbers of NHS workers forced into sickness absence due to COVID-19 related reasons continues to increase – as cases of the Omicron virus variant surge.
Chris Hopson, the head of NHS Providers which represents trusts, said coronavirus absences were having a significant impact on the economy and parts of the health service.
Some trusts reported current staffing problems were leading to significant numbers of ambulances off the road, he added.
Unison, one of the largest unions representing health workers, said NHS trusts need to “up the pressure” on the government to distribute the tests needed if stocks are low.
The union’s deputy head of health Helga Pile said: “NHS workers are under enough pressure as it is without the additional worry of obtaining tests.”
Latest data showed 18,829 staff at NHS acute trusts in England were off work due to Covid, either through sickness or self-isolation, on 19 December. Figures for more recent days are due to be released on Friday.
Patchy supply of both lateral flow and booking slots for PCR test sites have been on and off for the last few weeks, as demand surges with the spread of the Omicron variant.
Problems getting hold of the rapid tests could lead to people mixing over the New Year without knowing if they are infectious, a scientist has warned.
Prof Peter Openshaw said the issues was very worrying, given conditions at parties were perfect for transmission with people often gathering in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.